Cutting loose an African despot

Pressure is building on Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. Now is the time to prepare for a transition.

A decade. That's all it has taken for Africa's fastest growing economy to become the world's fastest shrinking one that's not at war. And for the continent's "breadbasket" to empty, leaving widespread hunger. Zimbabwe can't take much more of this.

Hopefully, it won't have to. Pressure as never before is building on the octogenarian president, Robert Mugabe, to give way after 27 years as strongman leader.

Mr. Mugabe may still be revered by many Africans as the great liberator of the former Rhodesia from white rule, but he has made a mess since then. Inflation clocks in at more than 1,700 percent. The unemployment rate is a staggering 80 percent. Food is scarce, as are fuel and foreign currency. The 12 million people in this country survive through barter, or by leaving.

An estimated 3 million have fled, many to South Africa. One would think this influx would have prompted South African President Thabo Mbeki to exchange his ineffective policy of "quiet diplomacy" with his neighbor for one with more teeth. South Africa is, after all, Zimbabwe's largest trading partner.

Still, fresh diplomacy is afoot after photographs of brutally beaten opposition leaders, taken earlier this month, sparked indignation around the world and where it counts most – with Zimbabwe's neighbors. Not letting up, police raided the main opposition headquarters on Wednesday and made arrests.

Regional leaders, including Mr. Mbeki, are holding a special meeting Wednesday and Thursday of this week, reportedly to urge Mugabe to negotiate with the opposition. That's a significant departure from their past tolerance.

Pressure from Mugabe's peers has a better chance of working than pressure from the West, which he skillfully vilifies as the colonial oppressor. More important still is growing pressure from within Mugabe's regime and his powerful ZANU-PF party for him to step aside. Security forces are divided, and an economy in free fall is leaving him with less money to wield power through patronage.

Meanwhile, there's a "new spirit of resistance" from the people, said US Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell in an interview with the Associated Press last week. He added that many of the elements that bring on a coup or revolution are now present in Zimbabwe.

Africa has rid itself of despots through force and negotiation. Armed rebels pushed Zaire's corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko into exile and Tanzanian troops forced Uganda's bloodstained Idi Amin to flee. Charles Taylor's exit from Liberia was arranged by international agreement.

Exactly when and how Zimbabwe will cross over to a post-Mugabe era is impossible to predict. Defiance is the leader's middle name. This isn't the first time his ruling party has been divided. And the shrewd ruler could let up on opponents in advance of 2008 elections, then rig the vote.

But at some point, the Mugabe era will be over. Western diplomats are wisely encouraging a deal between ZANU-PF and the main faction of the opposition, leaving Mugabe sidelined. They should also focus on an aid package that will surely be needed.

Those inside and outside Zimbabwe should make every effort to prepare for a smooth transition.

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