Commentary By Kate Hoey Labour MP for Vauxhall

October 2006

ROBERT Mugabe's regime has launched yet another crackdown, this time against the leaders of trade unions and political and civil opposition.

Over the past few weeks peacefull demonstrations have been savagely broken up, participants arrested and badly beaten in custody. The trade union leaders were still bruised and bandaged when I met them on a recent undercover visit, but they were even more determined to continue risking their lives in the cause of freedom and democracy.

Against this background I hardly expected to be able to bring out an optimistic message, but there is a belief that with concerted outside pressure the nightmare Zimbabweans are living through could be brought to an end.

Despite the shortage of fuel I travelled throughout the country, to Harare, Bulawayo, Victoria Falls and Gweru, and became convinced that the regime is, at last, vulnerable to pressure. The ruling party, Zanu PF, is disintegrating into factions warring over who will succeed 82-year-old Mugabe and looking for protection from prosecution for past excesses.

The attack on trade union protesters was under the direct supervision of one of Mugabe's most senior ministers, Didymus Mutasa, and shows a threatened regime determined to crush dissent at any cost.

During my last visit in June 2005, I witnessed Operation Murambatsvina or "Drive out the Rubbish" which left nearly a million people homeless as slums and homes were demolished.

The World Health Organisation recently reported that life expectancy in Zimbabwe is now shorter than anywhere else in the world, with average life expectancy for women only 34 and 37 for men.

But there are signs that Africa itself is finally becommg weary of the antics of this ageing dictator who has destroyed his country and its economy with a mix of corruption, greed and suicidai policies.

After eight consecutive years of negative growth in GDP, and with inflation rising towards an annual rate. of 5,000 per cent, Zimbabwe, from being one of the most advanced nations in Africa, is falling apart. African leaders privately admit that they cannot handle the crisis on their own and would like to see some form of international initiative.

Given our historical and political position the United Kingdom must play a special role in finding a way forward. Until now our. government has preferred to maintain a low profile and is anxious to avoid playing into Mugabe's propaganda script, which portrays the Zimbabwe crisis as a bilateral post-colonial dispute. - But now the time is right for us to give a strong lead.

Compared with many emergencies around the world Zimbabwe is a relatively: straightforward problem but it requires leadership and political will. The people of Zimbabwe would welcome any serious initiative and it would not require military involvement by our already overstretched armed forces.

I am convinced that a solution is possible and if only Tony Blair would grasp the problem he could have the legacy he is looking for - something he will never get in Afghanistan or Iraq.