TOPICS: No end in sight to Mugabe’s tyranny

The shelves are bare except for what Zimbabwe’s limping factories produce — baked beans at the cost of a month’s salary, crisps rationed to two packets per shopper and all the cleaning fluid you want. The petrol pumps dried up a month ago. Water and electricity are off more often than they are on. The national currency has an expiry date of July 2007 stamped on it but it’s worth hardly anything anyway, so nobody seems to care.

Some Zimbabweans find a perverse comfort in all this because they believe, as the US ambassador put it, that Robert Mugabe is committing regime change on himself with his mad economics. It cannot get any worse, they say, but it can.That said, everyone except Mugabe and his inner circle seems to agree that with inflation accelerating so fast no one really knows what it is, and with much of the economy decamped to the black market and a system of bartering, total economic meltdown cannot be far off. The US envoy’s prediction sent a shudder through the upper echelons of Zanu-PF (the ruling party) and prompted Mugabe to order the police and army into the shops to enforce the cutting of the prices of everything by at least half. While it demonstrated Mugabe’s loose grasp of the causes of inflation, the efficiency with which reductions were imposed also showed that he remains very much in control.

Mugabe’s neighbours are divided and even those bearing the brunt of his chaos appear paralysed. He arrived at the summit of southern African Presidents to thunderous applause. To many, it offends their African nationalism to see Mugabe pushed around by the Americans and British. The Zambians and South Africans are more critical, but Mugabe appears scornful of Thabo Mbeki’s efforts to mediate a settlement between Zanu-PF and the opposition.

Mbeki says he wants to reach agreement on terms for a free presidential election next year. Why would Mugabe agree to that? He’s spent seven years rigging elections precisely because he knows he’s going to lose and has no intention of surrendering power - at least not to anyone outside Zanu-PF. He can go into another election pretty much on his own terms and may not need to rig it so much after all.

Some of Mugabe’s inner circle also have good reason to fear what will come next. Yet there are signs of discontent among those around Mugabe. Questions continue to swirl around the death of the head of the presidential security guard, Brigadier General Armstrong Gunda, who was supposedly killed when his car was hit by a train. Six days before Gunda was killed, about 15 members of his force were arrested and accused of plotting a coup, although not the general. But the mystery over Gunda hints at the direction any solution may have to come from. The region’s leaders can’t provide the solution, neither can Britain. Change will have to come from within and if the opposition can’t do it, perhaps Zanu-PF’s survival instincts will kick in and it will ditch its greatest liability. But don’t count on it. — The Guardian