Mugabe's false victory

Zimbabwe: Aging president's time is running out in a country where young people are restless majority.

March 14, 2002

PRESIDENT Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe has a big problem no rigged elections can solve: His time is running out.

At 78, he is revered in Africa as the guerrilla leader who brought black majority rule to the former Rhodesia in 1980. But most of his country's population is five decades younger than he. Past glories have little meaning to the young; they are disillusioned about today, worried about the future.

Over the 22 years of Zimbabwe's independence, Mr. Mugabe has ruthlessly marginalized most of his opponents. After years of bitter feuds, he co-opted one-time rival Joshua Nkomo, for example.

Morgan Tsvangirai, 50, Mr. Mugabe's presidential challenger in the national elections held last weekend, is different.

Unlike the late Mr. Nkomo, he is not trying to agitate tribal passions. Instead, Mr. Tsvangirai derives strength from his ability to mobilize masses of disaffected city dwellers. Because of his former position as Zimbabwe's labor union chief, he also has close links to South Africa's ruling party.

In coming days, as the ballots are counted in Zimbabwe, South African intermediaries are likely to try to convince Mr. Mugabe to craft a power-sharing arrangement with Mr. Tsvangirai. But instead, he wants to prosecute his challenger for treason.

This kind of blind disregard for the country's realities only makes Mr. Mugabe's Pyrrhic victory worse. After two decades of mismanagement and corruption, his country is falling apart. The future may not belong to Mr. Tsvangirai, but it certainly belongs to the younger generations. Sooner than he realizes, Mr. Mugabe will be irrelevant.

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