The cash-strapped government of Zimbabwe made a surprise payment of $120 million to the International Monetary Fund this week, an amount that analysts said might be enough to keep the troubled African nation from being expelled when the global lender's governing body meets next week.
The move was the latest in a series of recent actions by President Robert Mugabe to demonstrate his country's continued viability and resistance to foreign pressure at a time when its economy is collapsing. The amount was more than many observers expected the nation could muster and apparently was paid without the help of neighboring South Africa, which had offered substantial help if Mugabe agreed to political and economic reforms.
The payment, which is less than half of the $295 million in overdue debt Zimbabwe has accumulated since 2001, will not ease the shortages of fuel, electricity, water and other basic commodities that have hobbled the country in recent months.
But Zimbabwean officials expressed hope that it would, for now, forestall the embarrassing possibility that the IMF would make Zimbabwe the first nation expelled since Czechoslovakia was voted out in 1954.
"This is a modest payment meant to demonstrate our sincerity with respect to our international obligations," said Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank governor, Gideon Gono, according to the government-run Herald newspaper on Thursday. He added, "All we can do is to plead mitigatory circumstances to our arrears situation and pray that the jury will see for itself how genuine our efforts at self-correction are."
IMF officials confirmed the payment but declined to elaborate on what effect it would have on the IMF board of governors, which meets next week in Washington and will consider whether to expel Zimbabwe. An IMF team has been in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, meeting with government officials for several days.
Mugabe, in power since Zimbabwe was formed in 1980, has steadfastly refused in recent weeks to accept an aid package from South Africa worth nearly $500 million. The key conditions underpinning the loan, according to news reports in Zimbabwe and South Africa, were that Mugabe resume talks with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and accept other reforms. Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe has cracked down on press freedoms, dissent and most forms of political activity.
Instead, Mugabe has become increasingly defiant in recent months. He defended a massive demolition campaign that left 700,000 Zimbabweans either homeless or without jobs, and he resisted a $30 million humanitarian package from the United Nations. He pushed through constitutional changes this week giving him broad new powers to seize land and limit travel by his opponents. He turned away an emissary from the African Union, former president Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique. And Mugabe repeatedly criticized efforts by South African President Thabo Mbeki, regarded as his most important regional ally, to get him to negotiate with opponents.
"We tell all those calling for such ill-conceived talks to please stop misdirecting their efforts," Mugabe said last month.
South African officials welcomed the payment by Zimbabwe, said government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe, who added that talks between the two countries were continuing on some form of financial assistance. But analysts said the payment to the IMF gave Mugabe more time to find a solution to the nation's crisis without strings attached.
"President Thabo Mbeki's government has egg on its face," said Trevor Ncube, publisher of independent weekly newspapers in Zimbabwe and South Africa. "The old fox has outmaneuvered them again."
Lovemore Madhuku, a government opponent who heads the National Constitutional Assembly, a civic group, said Mugabe was motivated more by pride than by economics at a time when foreign currency is desperately needed for food, fuel and other goods.
"They still want to portray themselves as a normal democracy," Madhuku said. "I don't think anybody will be fooled. The crisis continues, even if they pay off the IMF."