Off all the rogues who have ruled African states since their independence, none is more disappointing than Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. Some may have been more murderous and corrupt but for the most part they never pretended to be otherwise. Mr Mugabe likes to pose as a civilised modern figure even as he poisons Zimbabwe's economy and democracy.

With a presidential election due in March, he is moving to outlaw opposition, using the parliamentary majority he gained by terrorism and economic sabotage two years ago. And when the MPs fail him, he suspends the Parliament and passes law by decree.

One dictate declares it an offence to "undermine the authority of the President" or "engineer hostility" towards him. Another bans the release of official information and bars foreign journalists. Nobody is allowed to publish leaked information or "spread rumours that cause alarm and despondency." If all this fails to ensure the climate is right for Mr Mugabe's re-election, his roughneck supporters are being organised to deter wayward voters.

It can only be wondered why the likes of Mr Mugabe bother with the electoral formalities. Possibly they derive some deluded sense of self-respect from a contrived result. But his need of that satisfaction gives the international community, particularly the Commonwealth, some leverage.

Britain and the US are talking of freezing his foreign assets and denying him visas. The European Union is considering unspecified sanctions. New Zealand is urging Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth.

After a meeting of African leaders in Malawi this week Mr Mugabe sounded more conciliatory. He may allow international election observers and let foreign media cover his poll.

In that event it remains just possible that his misgoverned populace will dare to vote against him in such numbers that they will be rid of him at last.