As Zimbabwe marked 28 years of independence from minority rule last Friday, a feeling of despair and great anxiety looms in all corners of this impoverished and increasingly turbulent southern African state. Once regarded as the region's bread-basket, blessed with an abundance of mineral deposits and the most skilled and educated workforce on the continent, as well as a thriving agricultural sector, it has become a political liability and an economic and social basket case of unprecedented proportions over the past eight years or so.

With the world's highest inflation rate of 165 000%, unserviceable debts of more than $4.7bn; a life expectancy of 36 years; poverty rates of more than 80%; unemployment rates of 85%; and more than 1.8 million Zimbabweans receiving food aid last year, a deepening crisis of disproportional levels is unfolding - even by regional standards.  This year's festivities, punctuated with military and police displays, soccer matches, live music performances and the grand, yet rhetorical speech made by the country's autocratic and increasingly desperate president, Robert Mugabe, couldn't mask the uncertainties and deep-seated fears of ordinary Zimbabweans that things could get even worse for them in the coming weeks.

Although the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) lost its majority in Parliament for the first time since independence in 1980 (97 seats to 110 for the opposition), it has since been able to force the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to administer a recount in 23 constituencies where it claims its candidates have been cheated, due to voting irregularities and counting errors.  Meanwhile, the hotly contested presidential elections are yet to be released - more than three weeks after the ballot, fuelling international concerns that the recount is simply a ploy to buy time and coerce voters to vote for Mugabe in a run-off poll, and thereby subverting the will of the electorate.

Independent and ruling party projections indicate that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, got most of the votes, although he is just shy of the required 50% plus 1 to avoid a second-round run-off.  Meanwhile, an ongoing recount of ballots from the March polls continues amid fears on the side of the opposition, led by the MDC, that the ruling ZANU-PF's strategy is to retain power by a combination of a show of force and violence towards opposition supporters designed to frustrate the opposition and drain their resources.

Last month's presidential and parliamentary election results saga has, without doubt, brought the nation to the brink of civil unrest and potential conflict.  According to human rights groups, post-election violence has left 10 people dead, 500 injured and more than 3,000 displaced.  Meanwhile, reports of rape, the burning of properties and torture aimed directly at opposition supporters and white farmers by so-called war veterans have increased sharply, increasingly pointing to government's resolve to stifle political opposition to its rule.  However, this comes as no surprise to a number of analysts on the continent, who have long predicted that Mugabe's exit from political office would be anything but graceful and smooth, but marked by turbulence.

Independent observers and opposition groups have called on the international community, the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to intervene in Zimbabwe to ensure that the rule of law was upheld and the elections results were announced without further delay.

However, the international response thus far, to the deeply contested and manipulated elections, has been dismal at best.  The SADC election observers came out in praise of Mugabe for conducting elections in a "free and fair" environment, while South African President, Thabo Mbeki's so-called policy of "quiet diplomacy", aimed at engaging Mugabe in a dialogue of reconciliation with the country's opposition, has been widely discredited for having resulted in an impasse, instead of resolving the country's political crisis. Failure at the emergency SADC summit last weekend to criticize Mugabe for the delay, further discredited SADC leaders and the organization as a whole - one that has attempted to forge ahead in recent months on economic integration, democracy and peer reviews as regional principles.

The SADC's failure to make pronouncements on the rising violence, and the inclination of African leaders to stop short of criticizing Mugabe, only exacerbate an already tense political atmosphere.  While the current crisis in Zimbabwe rests upon the assumption that African leaders are completely resistant to the idea of military intervention in Zimbabwe, Mugabe is slowly taking his country to the brink of complete collapse, as it has already been ostracized by the global political economy.  This has become a domestic political issue that is turning into a destabilizing force in a region, which is in the process of slowly shedding its turbulent past of wars, coups and minority apartheid rule.

A key to the resolution of the political crisis and, ultimately, economic recovery, will be the resolution of the long-drawn struggle to oust Mugabe by means of a negotiated power-sharing agreement.  The final outcome could be determined less by the electoral process in Zimbabwe, and more by applied pressure from African statesmen and their Western counterparts to force Mugabe to negotiate a compromise with the MDC to avoid a similar tale to what recently unfolded in Kenya.  In the meantime, the country anxiously awaits the election results, with great trepidation as to what Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have in store for the country over the coming period.

Also published in Mail and Guardian (South Africa) and The Hill Times

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