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In Zimbabwe, even loyalists are disloyal

His own party, the army and police are all ready for Mugabe, 83, to go.

March 29, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Everything you'd expect to find in the office of a senior official in Zimbabwe's ruling party was there: the dominating portrait of President Robert Mugabe, the yellowing photos of liberation martyrs and heroes. The only discordant note was in the words of the official himself.

"People loved Mugabe. We loved Mugabe."

Past tense.

"We need to look for someone else," the official continued, adding that many in the ruling ZANU-PF party agree with him that it's time for the Old Man to go.

Just months ago, a conversation like this, particularly with a foreign journalist, would have been unthinkable. But Mugabe, 83, is losing powerful factions in his own party and the increasingly disaffected army, police and security forces.

The only leader Zimbabwe has known since 1980, after the end of white minority rule, he has ruled with fear and patronage. Those who fell out of favor were fired, beaten or killed, and secret police kept careful watch on perceived enemies. For much of that time, however, Zimbabwe also was among the most prosperous countries in Africa.

Mugabe started seizing land from white commercial farmers in 2000, and much of it ended up in the hands of political cronies. The move paralyzed Zimbabwe's most successful economic sector and biggest employer.

Now his country has an official inflation rate of 1,730%, the world's highest, and life expectancy is 36 years, according to World Health Organization estimates. Unemployment is about 80%. Grass grows high along potholed highways; few people can afford a bus fare, let alone gas. They gather in large groups, waiting for a lift. When a truck stops, they swarm it.

The political opposition is once more trying to mount a challenge. Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, and other opposition leaders were arrested Wednesday, a little more than two weeks after Tsvangirai was arrested and beaten.

Support fades

Even as Mugabe cracks down on the opposition, his support among core backers has evaporated as hyperinflation eats into the business interests of ruling party heavyweights and gobbles police and army wages, causing mass desertions.

"The internal problems we have got are much larger than the problems created by the MDC," said the party official. "I don't think that even the president worries about the MDC. He's much more worried about what is happening in his own party."

The official's willingness to talk, even anonymously for fear of political reprisal, is a sign of the divisions in ZANU-PF and the difficulties Mugabe faces in overcoming party opposition to his plans to run for president again next year. Internal party opposition has already forced him to abandon a bid to extend his term to 2010.

African leaders, normally mute about Zimbabwe's human rights abuses and economic collapse, also have grown more alarmed since Tsvangirai and dozens of other activists were arrested and beaten in the capital, Harare, on March 11. About 100 activists have been hospitalized since then. Many were abducted from their homes and severely beaten, often with iron bars.

On Wednesday, at least nine other opposition leaders were arrested overnight, said opposition spokesman Eliphas Mukonoweshuro. Tsvangirai was released unharmed several hours later.

The opposition is demanding a new constitution leading to free and fair elections next year and is reportedly willing to offer Mugabe immunity from prosecution. Without reform, it has threatened to boycott next year's election.

Leaders of the Southern African Development Community, a regional group, will hold an emergency meeting in Tanzania today at which they are expected to press Mugabe to spell out plans to retire and ensure an orderly transition.

The small ruling party clique that still supports Mugabe argues that ZANU-PF will collapse in chaos if he goes.

'He's just greedy'

The high-ranking party official said there also was another way of viewing the situation.

"The other school of thought could be: 'No, he's just greedy. He wants to die in power. Or possibly he's married to a young girl who's very ambitious and needs that protection up to the last breath of the husband.' " Mugabe's second wife, Grace, is 42 years his junior.

Jonathan Moyo, a former information minister sacked for disloyalty in 2004, said Mugabe was facing open rebellion from two important party factions representing Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former parliament speaker, and Vice President Joyce Mujuru, who is married to the powerful former army chief Solomon Mujuru.

South Africa, the regional power, has been talking to the opposition and ruling party figures including Joyce Mujuru in an effort to ease tensions that it sees as a growing threat to all of southern Africa.

But Moyo predicted in a telephone interview that Mugabe would stage a desperate last stand to hold on to power until his death.

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