WITH its government of national unity between President Robert Mugabe's Zanu (PF) and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change , Zimbabwe is replicating the Kenyan experience of "cohabitation" between President Mwai Kikwete and his erstwhile opponent, Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

Launched in France in 1986 by president Francois Mitterrand when he asked opposition leader Jacques Chirac to become his prime minister, "cohabitation" -- sometimes a necessity in semiparliamentary systems that combine an elected, executive head of state with the traditions of parliamentarianism -- demands a high degree of tolerance for radically different policy perspectives. It is the political equivalent of "sleeping with the enemy". The jury is still out as to how it has worked in Kenya, though it could be argued that the fact the government has survived for 10 months shows a modicum of success.

Will it work in Zimbabwe?

One important difference with Kenya is that Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, and is the country's founding father. And the first indications are not promising. The arrest of Roy Bennett (Tsvangirai's choice for deputy agriculture minister) by the security forces only two days after the new government was formed shows that the military is playing hardball. Not surprisingly, Mugabe was unwilling to give up the state security portfolios.

Still, the current government offers by far the best opening in 10 years to pry Zimbabwe out of the mess it finds itself. The international community, and particularly the western powers that hold the purse strings, should try to make the most of it, rather than continue to push Mugabe to the wall, leaving him with no options.

In an unprecedented step, the British embassy put an advert in a local daily in Harare indicating that Britain will not renew its aid to Zimbabwe as long as Mugabe is in the government. Queen Elizabeth not too long ago stripped Mugabe of his knighthood. The US has also voiced its displeasure with Mugabe's continued hold on power, and leading newspapers in the US and Britain have published editorials along the same lines.

Nobody would dispute that Mugabe bears the brunt of the responsibility for driving his country down the drain. The question is a different one. Things in Zimbabwe are bad, people are dying by the thousands, and the international community needs to step in. This is not easy. By law, international co-operation funds need to be exchanged at the official rate at the central bank. This means they subsidise the government, since the official exchange rate is only a minimal fraction of the "real" (meaning black market) one. But the underlying problem is a deeper one.

The arrest of Bennett is a symptom of the degree to which the military in Zimbabwe has become a force of its own. Mugabe has been ruling with a junta -- the Joint Operations Command -- with the military honchos sharing the responsibility for the brutal repression against the opposition that has become such a hallmark of the regime. Much like Mugabe, the generals have no interest in giving up power.

On the other hand, a key part of Tsvangirai's electoral plank before coming to power was that he would pay public servants in hard currency. Being paid in Zimbabwean money doesn't even make it worth their while showing up to work, as a result of which only one in five schools is actually functioning. Fulfilling this promise means $40m a month, which Zimbabwe doesn't have. If Tsvangirai is unable to deliver on this, he will pay a hefty political price. There is much to be said for working with him to make this happen, without continuing to demand that Mugabe should go before even considering it.

Many would argue that the main reason Zimbabwe's situation has deteriorated so drastically over the past decade has been Mugabe's willingness to do whatever is needed to keep himself in power, even if it means running his country into the ground. Yet, the driving force behind his stubbornness goes beyond strict megalomania. According to some reports, he was willing to leave power after losing the first round of presidential elections to Tsvangirai last March, but the military wouldn't let him.

And then, there is the question of "the morning after". The existence of the International Criminal Court and the principle of universal jurisdiction for human rights violations imply that the dictators of this world are no longer safe. Gen Augusto Pinochet's arrest in London in October 1998, which was the first time a former head of state was detained abroad for crimes committed at home, and the indictment of president Slobodan Milosevic by the s pecial t ribunal on c rimes in the former Yugoslavia -- another first, this time for a sitting head of state -- broke new ground in international human rights law. This was a welcome development, and the world is a better place as a result of it.

But there is a problem.

One reason Mugabe is said to be unwilling to step down (although, at 85, he knows his time is up) is because of what happened to Charles Taylor, Liberia's former strongman, a man with whose fate he seems to be obsessed. Under international pressure, Taylor resigned from the presidency in August 2003 to go to Nigeria, where he was offered safe exile. Yet, in March 2006 he was released by Nigeria, to be tried in Freetown by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Taylor, one of Africa's worst and bloodiest warlords, is now in prison in The Hague, facing 11 charges of crimes against humanity.

I remember visiting Harare in November 1998, shortly after Pinochet's arrest in London, and, while staying at the Meikles Hotel in Harare, listening to an hour-long programme on BBC Africa about the implications of that arrest for Africa -- by no means an obvious subject. There was a panel of commentators from different countries and listeners phoned in from all over the continent to convey their passionate reactions. It touched a raw nerve, and not just because Pinochet, like to so many African dictators, loved to shop at Harrods and would no longer be able to do so.

These are all very difficult choices, for which I do not claim to have all the answers. What I do know, however, is that it is not possible for the international community to have it both ways. It cannot tell Zimbabwe all co-operation will be withheld until and unless Mugabe quits, while at the same time holding over his head the very real possibility that he will end up sharing a cell with Taylor in The Hague. Human nature being what it is, the first will not happen if it is likely to be followed by the second.

Working with the present government and empowering Tsvangirai seems a far more realistic option.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.