If a truly free and fair presidential election were held in Zimbabwe tomorrow, I doubt that Robert Mugabe would win even 20 per cent of the popular vote. In two recent tests of public opinion - a constitutional referendum in February 2000 and a general election four months later - Mugabe and his government lost.
After the referendum, he admitted defeat and then proceeded to launch a ferocious assault on the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In the run-up to the general election, MDC candidates and supporters were systematically murdered, kidnapped and tortured; commercial farms throughout the country were torched; and although the government claimed to have won 62 seats to the MDC's 57, the results in 37 constituencies were challenged because of quite outrageous irregularities. One monitor described to me how he and colleagues had had to chase a police Land Rover over miles of open bushel as its occupants - senior police officers - attempted to abscond with two full ballot boxes.
While he retains the loyalty of old hardline stalwarts of the ruling party such as the foreign minister, Stan Mudenge and the vice-president, Simon Muzenda, Mugabe has had to buy off the generals and police chiefs, and they in turn have had to buy off their forces . . . and the money is starting to run out. Meanwhile, the economy has become dysfunctional and, as a direct result of the violent, 18-month campaign against white farmers, a countrywide famine looms. This in a country that only five years ago was the breadbasket of Central Africa.
And yet here he is, about to become president for a fourth term, and we will probably see him back on the global stage later this year, attending conferences, going on trade missions and generally convincing the west that it is the responsibility of western countries, as former colonial oppressors, to contribute foreign aid, famine relief and diplomatic recognition to save his beleaguered country.
African despots such as Mugabe have been running rings around western politicians for years. For more than two decades, Mugabe has systematically manipulated world leaders and those of neighbouring African countries. When Jack Straw emerged from the talks in Abuja, Nigeria, last September proclaiming "a major breakthrough" and reassuring us that Mugabe had agreed to stop the illegal land invasions by his so-called "war veterans" and hold free and fair elections, the only people who believed it were the delegates and their government ministries. Within a week, Zimbabweans were witnessing an escalation of land invasions. In the months following the signing of the Abuja Accord, Mugabe has introduced draconian laws to crush press freedom and punish any form of dissent, making it clear that neither independent international monitors nor unapproved foreign journalists will be allowed to attend the presidential election in March. This month, he promised a meeting in Malawi of Southern African heads of government that the election would be free and fair, and that international monitors would be welcome. They left the summit announcing, as did Straw after Abuja, that they were pleased with the breakthrough and expected Mugabe to keep his word. As tens of thousands of "greenshirts", the youth militia trained by Zanu-PF, Mugabe's party, fanned out across the countryside threatening and beating those not carrying Zanu-PF party cards, one could forgive the locals for showing less enthusiasm for their president's promises.
The rogue Mugabe is not a monster who emerged recently - his penchant for using the mailed fist at the first sign of serious opposition dates back to his debut election campaign in 1980. He came to power on a wave of violence and intimidation, and it suited international observers and the former colonial rulers to turn a blind eye. I covered that election as a young white liberal journalist and can now reflect, with the wisdom of hindsight, how most of us - white liberal journalists, that is - chose to overlook the election irregularities and violence, in the belief that black majority rule was the important prize.
By 1984, Mugabe had launched the Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on the dissident Matabele (the government is almost exclusively made up of people from the Shona tribe). Human rights organisations say that more than 10,000 men, women and children were killed, and twice that number tortured and beaten, in an ethnic cleansing campaign that was largely ignored by the international community.
Meanwhile, the beneficiaries of Mugabe's land redistribution programme are cabinet ministers, ministers' relatives, generals and bought businessmen - confirming the cynicism of Mugabe's vision of an egalitarian, post-colonial Zimbabwe.
Mugabe continues to portray his current campaign as an attempt to redress the imbalances created by the British colonial occupation. Most Zimbabweans I know don't buy it, but guilty western liberals do. Yet, if our collective liberal-democratic conscience determines that actions which are not acceptable in the First World may be acceptable in the Third World for cultural reasons - as I did as a young man, watching Mugabe's accession to power - then surely we are succumbing to racism.
Watch out for the next chapter in this sorry tale - the international rehabilitation of Robert Mugabe - and weep.
Graham Boynton traces the end of white rule in Africa in Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland (Random House)