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Could Mugabe step down, even if he wanted to?

The Zimbabwe Independent, via AllAfrica, has an intriguing item suggesting some of geriatric President Robert Mugabe's advisors may be urging him to begin preparations for stepping down:

A recent detailed "advisory note" to Mugabe from his close advisors has implored the president to take advantage of his history and incumbency to put his house in order and announce when he would be leaving, sources said.

The sources said Mugabe (87) is now in a quandary and his advisors were gravely concerned because of a series of circumstances which include his old age, health problems, Zanu PF infighting, the succession crisis, collapse of his election plans, growing impatience by Sadc leaders, events in North and West Africa and the hardening of international opinion against his 31-year rule.

Sadly, stepping down would seem to be a pretty irrational move for Mugabe at this point. The list of living autocratic leaders who have stepped down voluntarily is a pretty short one. In East Asia, Lee Kuan Yew and Jiang Zemin have been able to settle into comfortable retirements after presiding over impressive economic growth and have left robust political institutions behind them. Fidel Castro had a brother to hand over the reins to and, in any case, doesn't seem to have completely left the scene.

Mugabe doesn't have a natural successor, and it's far from clear that Zanu-PF can survive without him. He could hardly feel safe retiring in Zimbabwe with his political enemies -- Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC becoming more politically influential -- and a leader who still considers himself father of his nation isn't going to retire into quiet exile in Hong Kong unless he's absolutely forced to. So there's little reason for Mugabe to give up his monopoly on violence before he dies, which, with the best medical treatment Chinese military aid can by, could be a while. (This is a variation on the perverse incentives offered North Africa's strongmen, discussed recently by Stephen Walt.)

It's really Mugabe's high-level advisors and supporters, mostly veterans of Zimbabwe's independence struggle, who are in a quandary. They're far more likely than he is to face retribution for Zanu-PF's crimes, which explains why they're starting to think about an exit strategy. But it's probably far too late to build Zanu into something resembling China's, or even Cuba's, ruling parties.

GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

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