Peter Oborne

Letter from Zimbabwe

There is only one real subject of discussion at this weekend’s Zanu-PF Congress in Harare: when will Robert Mugabe stand down? The old man — whom party loyalists now refer to as the ‘second son of God’ — will be 86 in February.

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There is only one real subject of discussion at this weekend’s Zanu-PF Congress in Harare: when will Robert Mugabe stand down? The old man — whom party loyalists now refer to as the ‘second son of God’ — will be 86 in February.

There is only one real subject of discussion at this weekend’s Zanu-PF Congress in Harare: when will Robert Mugabe stand down? The old man — whom party loyalists now refer to as the ‘second son of God’ — will be 86 in February. It would take a miracle for him to stand in the next presidential elections and if he did, everyone knows that — however much violence he employed — he would lose. He is hated in Zimbabwe and a recent opinion poll by a respected local company, MOPI, recorded him enjoying 10 per cent support. There are two prime contenders for the succession. Mugabe’s own choice, and the favourite among the murderous Zanu-PF ruling elite who have governed Zimbabwe since independence, is Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa, defence minister and for many year’s Mugabe’s personal enforcer, is a nasty piece of work. He almost certainly bears personal responsibility for the atrocities of the 1980s, when Zanu-PF used ethnic cleansing to silence political dissent in Matabeleland. Mnangagwa was also behind last year’s eruption of rural violence, when Zanu-PF militias were licensed to round up and in many cases beat to death voters who had the temerity to vote for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But Mnangagwa is even more unpopular than Robert Mugabe himself, and this has thrown up an opening for a new candidate for the succession. She is Joice Mujuru, wife of a former army chief. Mujuru enjoys a wider popular appeal, but may not be so acceptable to hardliners. Many local commentators are becoming convinced that Zanu-PF will break up when Mugabe finally quits.

Meanwhile Mugabe, who has always taken a keen interest in Westminster politics, is fascinated by next year’s general election in Britain. Friends say he is gagging for a Conservative victory. He heartily dislikes Gordon Brown but, according to those privy to the dinner-party conversation of the Zimbabwean president, he sees promise in David Cameron. They assert that Cameron reminds him of the Tory swells — Margaret Thatcher, Lord Carrington and Lord Soames — with whom he got on so well at the Lancaster House negotiations which secured Zimbabwe’s independence almost exactly 30 years ago. Supposing Cameron wants to help ease Mugabe out gently, he could do worse than to deploy Christopher Soames’s son Nicholas — currently languishing like a spare part on the Tory back-benches — as special envoy. One way of enabling a peaceful handover of power would be offering immunity to prosecution to Mugabe and his senior cronies.

Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai disagrees with Mugabe’s assessment of Gordon Brown. ‘I get on very well with him. He is a very fine man,’ he says. Sitting in the garden of his surprisingly modest bungalow in the suburbs of Harare, Tsvangirai insists that it is time for Britain and Zimbabwe to become friends once again. He tells me that he supports Brown’s call for Britain to rejoin the Commonwealth. ‘It is up to Zimbabwe to revisit the issue and rejoin the family of nations. Our pariah status must go.’ Tsvangirai tells me that his relationship with Robert Mugabe has no parallel in world politics — and he can say that again. For years the two men have been sworn enemies and deadly rivals. Now they sit around the Cabinet table. Tsvangirai’s strategy — which marks him out from almost all other African leaders — is to acquire power without resort to violence. ‘We have a working relationship,’ Tsvangirai tells me. ‘There is a mutual respect.’

Up to a point. In fact the relationship between the MDC and Zanu-PF is fraught. Mugabe and his henchmen run what is in effect a parallel government. There is total Zanu-PF control over the armed forces, the police and the intelligence services. This Zanu-PF regime operates outside the law. Beatings, torture and abductions of MDC supporters continue, with Tsvangirai powerless to do anything to stop them. His choice as deputy minister for agriculture, Roy Bennett, is on trial on trumped-up treason charges. Gideon Gono, at the heart of so much Zanu-PF corruption, grotesquely remains in office as governor of the Reserve Bank. A fresh wave of farm seizures is under way. Negotiations have now begun to resolve this impasse at the heart of government, but nobody gives them much chance of success. One important factor is working in Tsvangirai’s favour. Ex-President Mbeki of South Africa was blindly in favour of Zanu-PF. But Tsvangirai tells me that ‘President Zuma is approaching this from a different perspective. It is no longer business as usual. It is no longer axiomatic that Zanu-PF can take South African support for granted.’

Robert Blake was one of the greatest British historians of the 20th century. His life of Benjamin Disraeli has claims to be the finest political biography ever written, while his The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill is a masterpiece which I have read over and over again. Now I discover that Blake also fitted in a history of Rhodesia, written in the 1970s. I have been reading it while travelling round the country, and it is first-rate. What I cannot discover is what prompted Blake to write it. Does anybody know?

A cool wind is blowing in from the north- east and heavy rain is in the air as I drive towards Manicaland with Charles Lock, a white farmer who was thrown off his land — for the third time — just a month ago. Lock, who played cricket for Zimbabwe in the 1990s, once taking 5-38 against New Zealand, has probably the most secure title of any farmer in Zimbabwe. It has been repeatedly confirmed by the Supreme Court and contempt orders are out against Brigadier Mujaji, the serving Zimbabwean army officer who has seized the farm. However, the police are too scared to confront the brigadier.

We arrive at the gates of the farm and the soldiers guarding the farm allow us in to take away some of Lock’s household effects — family photographs, a fridge, a vacuum cleaner, the TV. The rain has set in as we drive away through miles and miles of fields that ought to be ripe with crops. Instead they are reverting to wilderness. There are an increasing number of reasons to be hopeful about Zimbabwe, but the tragedy will never be resolved till the land issue is settled.

Peter Oborne is political columnist on the Daily Mail.