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3 African Presidents to Visit Zimbabwe Monday - 2003-05-04

Three African presidents arrive Monday in Harare to help find a solution to the deep political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe. The African leaders are to meet with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and leaders of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

There is a sense of euphoria among some of President Robert Mugabe's opponents on the streets. Many ordinary citizens believe the 79-year-old leader, who has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980, is on his way out.

They say the economy is in such a poor state that Mr. Mugabe has to give way and step down from office.

But the other view is that Mr. Mugabe has no intention of retiring before he is ready - and that moment has not come.

Political analysts and some of Mr. Mugabe's former associates say the president will use the meeting with his African colleagues - Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Bakili Muluzi of Malawi - to buy time.

They say Mr. Mugabe has to find a successor within the ruling Zanu-PF to unify the party. They also say that, at the meeting with the three presidents, Mr. Mugabe will want to repair his image, and will probably agree to amend some of the harsher aspects of his government's security and media laws.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change has no high expectations of the visit. Spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi said the meetings will be no more than exploratory.

He said the opposition has to continue with high-profile mass action to pressure Mr. Mugabe to facilitate a transitional authority, leading to fresh elections. The opposition says it hopes this will be sooner rather than later.

In the past two months, the opposition and trade unionists have organized national strikes, which virtually shut down commerce and industry. Several diplomats believe these strikes persuaded the three African presidents that they can no longer ignore the opposition.

Independent political analyst Wilfred Mhanda, who leads a group of former war veterans who oppose Mr. Mugabe's policies, says the president's retirement at this stage is out of the question.

He said Mr. Mugabe would step down only if he believed his Zanu-PF had a chance of winning an election.

He said that Mr. Mugabe would attempt to repair his government's image to be able to borrow foreign money to buy fuel and help the economy begin to recover.

Others on the edges of the ruling party agree, not always for the same reasons, that Mr. Mugabe is not yet ready to go.