As recently as Monday, the idea of President Robert Mugabe voluntarily giving up power after 28 years was unthinkable for all but the sunniest of optimists. By Tuesday, there were persistent reports though denied by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) and the government that members of his regime, especially its security services, were negotiating a handover of power and immunity from prosecution for the regime's crimes. Three days after a general election whose results have yet to be announced, the prospect of a peaceful exit by the country's longtime leader seems to be growing. And that prompts the question: What would a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe be like?
So deep is the socio-economic crisis over which Mugabe has presided that the 84-year-old's departure would not, in itself, fix Zimbabwe. But it would be an important first step. With Mugabe gone and a new, less repressive and autocratic regime in the offing either one formed by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, or a multi-party national unity government the international community, and particularly institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, would likely renew their engagement with Zimbabwe.
Several years of 80% unemployment and raging inflation (now 100,000%) has left Zimbabwe's short-term infrastructure gutted, amid desperate shortages of everything from telephone wires to stocks of fuel and food as well as a viable currency. So rapid has been Zimbabwe's decline, however, that much of its more permanent infrastructure roads, buildings, and the education system remains intact. While getting Zimbabwe back on its feet would require a comprehensive program to repair the lighter infrastructure and replace the Zimbabwe dollar, at least temporarily, with a more stable foreign currency, results could be seen fairly quickly. Zimbabwe does not need the kind of major infrastructural overhaul required in other African countries, such as Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo. That may be why at least one investment fund, LonZim, run by the Lonrho group, announced last November that it was looking to raise more than $70 million to invest in Zimbabwe.
The other question surrounding Mugabe's possible exit is: What would it do for Africa? Answer: Possibly even more than it will do for Zimbabwe. Mugabe is one of the last African Big Men, from the generation of leaders who won independence from white or colonial rule in Africa, but who, once in power, often applied the same standards of rapacious authoritarianism. That era is coming to an end. Mobutu Sese Seko is gone from the Congo; Uganda's Idi Amin went long ago. Autocratic regimes remain in place in Equatorial Guinea and Sudan, but democracy is becoming the norm in much of Africa and with it, not coincidentally, has come peace. (The recent violence in Kenya, while horrifying, can also be read as a refusal by the population to accept their rulers' tyranny.) Mugabe's departure would signal the closing of an era not just for a country, but for a continent. Any immunity deal he managed to negotiate might frustrate human rights advocates who want to hold Mugabe to account for abuses during his rule particularly the massacre of tens of thousands of villagers in the opposition stronghold of Matabeleland during the 1980s via the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But immunity deals don't always hold. The arrest and trial in The Hague of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, even after he was promised immunity as part of the deal that eased him into exile in Nigeria, is obviously weighing on the discussions between Mugabe's regime and the opposition, mediated by South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki.
Words like "momentous" and "historic" are being used by international journalists to describe the events in Zimbabwe. And that may not be hyperbole. If the reports prove true that Mugabe is on his way out, Zimbabwe may well be about to experience nothing short of a rebirth.