Leading Zimbabwean officials cast doubts yesterday on reports that Robert Mugabe, the President, would agree to end his long and tyrannical reign in return for immunity from prosecution.
While Zanu-PF insiders admitted that there was a growing feeling within the ruling party that Mr Mugabe's departure would be the first serious step to resolving the Zimbabwe crisis, they told The Independent it was highly unlikely that Mr Mugabe would agree to a "disgraceful exit" involving exile.
It was also improbable that he would quit in a way that could be seen as capitulation to Western pressure for him to step aside. Reports on Monday suggested a deal was being considered by Zanu-PF involving setting up a transitional government to include Morgan Tsvangirai, the head of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Mr Tsvangirai claimed that two of Mr Mugabe's senior power-brokers, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the parliamentary speaker, and Vitalis Zvinavashe, the armed forces chief of staff, had sent an emissary to persuade him to agree to the deal.
But many doubted the credibility of the claim that President Mugabe was looking for an exit strategy in the face of a crumbling economy and the starvation his regime has inflicted on his people. One party official said: "His resolve to fight to stay in power and prove his critics wrong despite these proposals should not be underestimated."
In the absence of international sanctions and serious pressure to cripple Mr Mugabe's government, it was more likely that the President would put in place every possible measure to determine his successor before quitting, insiders said.
"He would be more inclined to secure his own succession plan first before considering resigning. Even if he does not serve his full term, I know for sure his aim is to let Zanu-PF remain in power until the next election in 2008 with his own man at the helm to guarantee his security," one official said. "There is no way he can be comfortable with an immunity deal involving the opposition, which might be reversed at a later stage ... His plan remains to have his man at the top while he tries to weaken or destroy the opposition."
Other Zanu-PF insiders said those people within the party who had told Mr Mugabe to quit before the presidential elections last year had been sidelined or fired. These included Eddison Zvobgo, a firebrand former minister, MPs and scores of executives of the powerful provincial committees, which elect leaders.
The two officials alleged to have sent an emissary to Mr Tsvangirai have more to gain if Mr Mugabe remains in power. Mr Mnangagwa, a former security minister, and General Zvinavashe, as army commander, were involved in masterminding the killing of more than 25,000 Mugabe opponents in southern Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. They face certain prosecution unless Mr Mugabe remains in power or one of them succeeds him.
The growing feeling within Zanu-PF that Mr Mugabe must go came from MPs and other officials unlikely to be able to exert the required pressure for him to quit.
The insiders said these junior officials and others who had been sidelined by Mr Mugabe, when he entrenched his power base after he won the elections in March, may have teamed up to put the issue of the President's retirement on the agenda.
One said: "I am not saying that Mr Tsvangirai is fabricating his meeting with this emissary. But this could be all part of the political manoeuvrings that are likely in our kind of chaotic political environment ... It could be that the emissary was not a bona fide representative of Mnangagwa and Zvinavashe.
"One should also not rule out the possibility of public posturing by Morgan Tsvangirai to hoodwink the world into believing he has the upper hand, especially in view of the massive siege of his party by Mr Mugabe."
Leaders of the MDC said Mr Tsvangirai could have met the emissary, but the party was unaware of it. "If this was a serious offer, we could have met and discussed it as a party, but Mr Tsvangirai did not call for such a special meeting. That confirms that he too could not have taken it seriously," said an MDC official who did not want to be named.
Even if the emissary was a genuine one, Mr Tsvangirai's decision to go public would have all destroyed the initiative. Another Zanu-PF official said: "Do you honestly imagine Mugabe going under these circumstances and after Tsvangirai's speech ... You must be joking."
The ruling party publicly dismissed as "wishful thinking and mischief" reports that Zanu-PF officials had initiated such a plot to force Mr Mugabe to stand down. Mr Mnangagwa denied any knowledge of such a plan, while General Zvinavashe said the whole story was too ridiculous to merit a comment.
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