SURPRISE AND, at least initially, euphoria greeted the agreement on Zimbabwe's future that was struck last week in Abuja, Nigeria. President Robert Mugabe's government quite unexpectedly agreed that it would stop illegal seizures of white-owned land.
In exchange, Britain and other rich countries will help compensate white farmers whose land is expropriated and handed to poor blacks. The Zimbabwean crisis arises from the intersection of two conflicts. The first originates in the country's conquest by British imperialism in the 1890s.
In colonial Rhodesia a handful of white settlers controlled the best land. The black majority were reduced to impoverished peasants and landless labourers. The land question was one of the main driving forces of the bitter guerrilla war waged against the racist regime of Ian Smith during the 1960s and 1970s. When the settlers were finally driven to the negotiating table, they were forced to surrender political power.
In exchange Mugabe, whose ZANU-PF party won the 1980 independence elections, left the economic structure of colonial Rhodesia largely intact. Whites remained a small but immensely privileged minority. Many white farmers flourished after independence by producing luxury export crops.
This set-up fell apart in the 1990s. The Mugabe regime was saddled with growing foreign debt. It abandoned the policy of limited social reform it had previously pursued and imposed the standard package of neo-liberal measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The result was a widening gap between the poor, all black, and the rich, black as well as white.
A new conflict developed, between the regime and the black masses, particularly the workers and urban poor. The formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) at the end of 2000 created a political force capable of electorally defeating Mugabe. He responded with a brilliantly cynical strategy. In order to defeat the opposition he rediscovered the old conflict over the land.
Groups of supposed veterans of the guerrilla war occupied white farms. This had a double effect. Firstly, it allowed Mugabe to outflank the MDC apparently from the left. The MDC leadership, despite largely originating from the unions and the left, support the neo-liberal Washington consensus. Their opposition to the land seizures allowed Mugabe to present himself as the champion of the peasantry, still the majority of the population.
In recent months the 'veterans' have extended their activities to the cities, intervening in support of workers threatened with the sack. Secondly, the 'veterans' and ZANU-PF Youth activists, with the support of the security forces, have created a climate of terror in large parts of rural Zimbabwe.
As a result ZANU-PF squeaked through to a narrow victory in last year's parliamentary elections, while Mugabe stands a reasonable chance of being re-elected next year. The MDC has been left fumbling. Key figures talked up the idea of a Yugoslav-style mass rising last year. But they dropped it at the last moment under pressure from Western governments.
The resulting situation was highly confusing. Morally Mugabe is in the right in demanding the land for the poor. But he doesn't give a damn about the land or the poor. He is simply interested in hanging on to power. One incident last week illustrated how little Mugabe wants to change Zimbabwean society.
When 'veterans' turned up on the cattle farm of the last white prime minister, Ian Smith, the police arived immediately to clear them off the land of this unrepentant old racist.
The Abuja agreement is indicative of the same tactics. Almost certainly the aim is to relieve the growing external pressure on the regime, particularly from powerful African states such as South Africa and Nigeria.
The Zimbabwean economy is in a state of near meltdown. The currency has collapsed, inflation has gone through the roof, and industrial and agricultural output is slumping. The regime can't afford further international isolation. But this doesn't mean Mugabe is raising the white flag.
His representatives at Abuja were adamant in rejecting demands for international monitoring of next year's presidential elections. The regime will continue to fight to retain power, however much Zimbabwean workers and peasants may suffer as a result.