News from nowhere

Talk of a "palace coup" against Robert Mugabe is growing as Zimbabweans seek a way out of the crisis threatening to crush their country.

But increasing numbers cannot afford to wait. Up to one third of the 12.5 million population is already in exile, and an additional 100,000 people flee each month. On these trends, President Mugabe could end up as King of Nowhere.

Speculation about a putsch within the ruling Zanu-PF party centres on Solomon Mujuru, a former army chief, and his wife, Joyce Mujuru, Zimbabwe's vice-president.

General Mujuru's meeting with the British and US ambassadors earlier this year aroused Mr Mugabe's ire. He may even have held talks with Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Emmerson Mnangagwa, another Zanu-PF veteran and longtime Mugabe crony, is also mentioned as a possible successor if Mr Mugabe is forced out. He is best remembered, and feared, for his role in the bloody suppression of Joshua Nkomo's rival Zapu party in the 1980s, after independence from Britain. Some say a Mnangagwa presidency would make Mr Mugabe look benign.

"A palace coup is what everyone in Zimbabwe is talking about," a senior British diplomatic source said. "They don't see Mugabe resigning.

"There won't be an uprising. Politically and culturally, that's not practical. He's unlikely to be outflanked politically within the party. So what's left? Gen Mujuru has a palace coup option."

The source said Britain and its allies were not expecting or encouraging such action, which would be very risky for those involved. "He'd only have one shot at it. It's been tried before, and the people concerned were banished. That's not what would happen this time. The situation is much more serious."

But he noted that, while the odds favoured Mr Mugabe, he would still need the endorsement of an extraordinary party congress in December if he were to stand again, as planned, in presidential elections due next March.

The British source said few believed the divided MDC could beat Zanu-PF in the polls. But informal talks were continuing with more open-minded members of the ruling party.

"We are in contact with factions in Zanu-PF," he said. "Talking to us is bad for their health. They are not instinctive democrats. But we say we are not enemies, we are not seeking to recolonise the country, we're looking for a rational approach, and that Mugabe's departure is a necessary but not sufficient condition for [national] recovery."

Ruling party interlocutors had been told that, even after Mr Mugabe left office, a compromise would be needed between the government, the international community and the Zimbabwean diaspora. This would have to include a return to the rule of law, the repeal of repressive legislation, an end to human rights abuses and censorship, and free and fair elections under international supervision.

In return, the source said, Britain, the EU, the US and international institutions would normalise relations, lift sanctions and fund the country's aid reconstruction requirements - a pledge reiterated by Gordon Brown in Bournemouth last week.

With Zimbabwe's government fresh out of cash, steeped in debt and facing renewed famine affecting 4 million people this winter, with the abject failure of its attempt to impose price controls now apparent to all (unofficially, inflation is said to be touching 25,000%), and with the human exodus now affecting all neighbouring states, even Mr Mugabe's traditional regional supporters are getting nervous.

The source said there had been an "enormous row" behind closed doors at the recent summit of the 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Lusaka after Zambia, backed by Namibia and Tanzania, proposed a discussion of Zimbabwe's problems. Mr Mugabe reportedly blew his top and stormed out.

While the organisation continued to maintain a united front in public, the incident showed that Zimbabwe's leader "no longer has the SADC in his pocket", the source said.

According to a recent report by the influential International Crisis Group: "Zimbabwe is closer than ever to complete collapse ... [It] increasingly threatens to destabilise the region." And only the neighbouring states could head off disaster.

The practical solution favoured by South Africa and the SADC, the ICG said, was a government of national unity led by a reformed Zanu-PF and including the MDC. But a financial rescue package requested by Mr Mugabe should be granted by the SADC only if Zimbabwe's government fully cooperated with the current South African mediation process, dropped plans to gerrymander rural constituencies, and committed to genuinely fair electons early next year.

But if Zimbabwe refused to cooperate, the ICG said, financial assistance should be withheld and all regional countries "should refuse to endorse any [subsequent] election and be prepared to isolate Mugabe and his regime".

In other words, an African solution to an African problem.

Simon Tisdall