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While the stature of President Thabo Mbeki as conflict mediator continues to grow elsewhere on the African continent, success has remained elusive in troubled Zimbabwe.
Thousands of residents greeted Mbeki as a possible saviour when he arrived in a rebel stronghold in northern Ivory Coast recently to negotiate with rebel leaders.
In 2003 Mbeki was among influential African leaders who presided over the departure of guerilla leader-turned-politician Charles Taylor, when the brutal Liberian dictator headed off to asylum in Nigeria.
While Mbeki skillfully negotiated recently with the warring factions in the Ivory Coast in West Africa, nearer home, worried Zimbabweans looked on helplessly as President Robert Mugabe consolidated his hold on power. Over the past four years the country has reeled from the effects of political violence, corruption, shortages, economic stagnation, an unemployment rate now pegged at more than 70 percent and a general breakdown in law and order.
Mbeki's policy of "quiet diplomacy" in seeking to broker negotiations between President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has so far failed to achieve significant results or to reign in the Zimbabwean leader, as widely expected. Undeterred, the Mugabe regime has just enacted new legislation that effectively outlaws foreign-funded Non-Governmental Organizations.
Far from signaling any imminent retirement after 24 years in office, the geriatric Zimbabwean leader emerged from his party's recent congress with a firmer grip on power and, of more concern, no visible sign of willingness to negotiate with the opposition, as expected by Mbeki.
Mugabe was ebullient after the congress. He dispensed with the niceties of intra-party democracy to outmaneuver the powerful House Speaker, Emmerson Mnangagwa, for long known to be his own chosen successor. Mugabe decreed just before the congress that one of Zanu-PF's two vice presidents must be a woman. He ruthlessly suppressed an internal challenge to his leadership when he suspended six young and upcoming politicians who had rallied to support Mnangagwa's campaign against Mrs. Joyce Mujuru, the president's favourite. In a swift move, the controversial information minister, Jonathan Moyo, alleged leader of the rebellion, was dumped from the party's policy-making central committee and powerful Soviet-type politburo.
While reaction outside the party was mixed, Mugabe endeared himself to his party's increasingly powerful and vocal women's league when he swore Mrs Mujuru in as Zimbabwe's second vice-president.
Ominously, this internal jockeying for power and the concurrent enactment of more stringent measures to suppress the media do not augur well for the accommodation of the opposition into any power-sharing scheme or negotiation, as envisaged by Mbeki. Any reference to the MDC during the Zanu PF congress was only in very depreciatory terms. Tsvangirai, who was acquitted recently on treason charges of plotting to assassinate the president, was briefly detained at Harare International airport on return from a recent trip abroad.
"To the new Zanu PF leadership," Tsvangirai said in a statement afterwards, "I welcome you with the same old message: I am still holding out that olive branch."
The MDC has previously threatened to boycott general elections scheduled for March 2005.
For his part, Mbeki hosted Tsvangirai in Pretoria once the Zimbabwean opposition leader was able to travel again after his marathon court case. Sources close to Mbeki's ruling African National Congress, say the South African President is, however, wary of the close links forged between the MDC, a trade union-based party and the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the ANC's most conspicuous political rival. A high-powered COSATU delegation on a recent visit to Zimbabwe, was bundled onto a bus by state agents in Harare, driven to the border under cover of darkness and deported. The South African government's response to this diplomatic spat was lukewarm.
Separately, Mbeki is said to be peeved by the MDC's perceived alliance with another major ANC political rival, the opposition Democratic Alliance, essentially a white-interests party. In Zimbabwe Mugabe's propaganda machinery accuses the MDC of embarking on a campaign to reverse the expropriation of white-owned farms by the state which, while accompanied by widespread violence was, according to them, entirely legitimate. Tsvangirai denies this and another charge that he is a "front for western imperialist interests". The state-controlled media ignore his protests.
Mugabe was the only foreign dignitary to receive a standing ovation when he attended celebrations held in Pretoria in May to mark the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa. Mbeki will overlook, only at his own peril, the fact that Mugabe's controversial land reform programme in Zimbabwe has earned him hero cult status among ANC supporters in South Africa.
The arrest in Cape Town of Mark Thatcher, son of former Conservative British Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, must have been a cause of great discomfort to Mbeki. Thatcher recently appeared in court charged with conspiring to sponsor suspected 70 mercenaries who were arrested by Mugabe's security men in Harare en route to oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, where they plotted to stage a coup to topple the government.
The highly respected Richard Goldstone, a retired South African Constitutional Court Justice and UN special prosecutor for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, has said that, unfortunately, Western criticism of state-sponsored violence and torture is seen as an anti-African campaign.
Mbeki's cautious approach and his failure to display more decisiveness and exert more force in putting pressure to bear on Mugabe, a failure which has had the effect of casting a shadow on his presidency, has in all probability, been influenced by a fear of being perceived to be prescribing a Western-sponsored solution to an African problem.
Meanwhile, Zimbabweans could very well discover that they may have placed too much faith in Mr Mbeki's ability to resolve their country's political crisis.
Geoff Nyarota is the founding editor-in-chief of The Daily News in Zimbabwe, now banned. Currently he is a fellow with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.