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African summit pushes Mugabe to negotiate

Opheera McDoom

African leaders on Monday pushed Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to open talks with the opposition after his controversial re-election.

African leaders on Monday pushed President Robert Mugabe to open talks with the opposition after he was re-elected unopposed in an election condemned as violent and unfair by the continent’s own monitors.

Mugabe (84) flew to an African Union summit in Egypt soon after being sworn in for a new term, extending his unbroken rule since independence from Britain in 1980.

As Mugabe arrived, the AU’s own monitors said Friday’s election did not meet their standards. They were the third African observer group to condemn the poll.

The summit was opposed to Western demands for hefty sanctions to punish Mugabe, but was moving towards a clear consensus on negotiations to end a deep and violent crisis in the ruined country.

Regional power South Africa, a key player in the Zimbabwe situation, called for Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change to enter talks on a transitional government. Tsvangirai withdrew from the ballot because of attacks on his supporters.

Pretoria is the designated Southern African mediator in Zimbabwe, although President Thabo Mbeki has been widely accused of being ineffective and too soft on Mugabe.

The statement was the first time South Africa has publicly called for a unity government and appeared to indicate the line that the AU will take. Any stronger measures are likely to be blocked by divisions at the summit.

Zimbabwe’s crisis has ruined a once-prosperous country, saddling it with the world’s worst hyper-inflation and straining neighbouring nations, especially South Africa, with a flood of millions of economic refugees.

Region divided
Conference sources said countries from East and West Africa wanted to take a strong stand on Zimbabwe but Mugabe’s neighbours in Southern Africa were divided.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, Mugabe’s biggest critic in the southern region, was rushed to hospital in Egypt just before the summit after suffering a stroke.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, an outspoken critic of Mugabe, called in Nairobi for his suspension from the AU until a fair election was held. But President Mwai Kibaki told Reuters at the summit that negotiations for a unity government were the only solution.

Like other summit leaders, he said he was optimistic a solution would be found.

Many African leaders have previously appeared over-awed by Mugabe, long seen as a liberation hero. But the conduct of the elections provoked unprecedented criticism from within Africa.

Tsvangirai pulled out of the election because of violence in which he said nearly 90 of his followers were killed.

Monitors from both Zimbabwe’s neighbours in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Pan African Parliament said the vote was undermined by violence and did not reflect the will of the people.

Some of the summit leaders favour a power-sharing deal modelled on one that ended a bloody post-election crisis in Kenya this year.

Both Mugabe and Tsvangirai say they are ready for African-sponsored talks, although the issue of who would lead a unity government remains a possibly insuperable obstacle.

Tsvangirai called on the summit leaders not to recognise Mugabe’s re-election, after electoral officials said he won more than 85% of the vote, in which he was the only candidate. “We want them [the AU] to say the ... election is illegitimate,” he told Dutch public television.

Tsvangirai won the first round of elections on March 29 but fell short of the majority needed for outright victory. He said that result should be the basis for negotiating a transition.

A group of eminent international personalities, including three Nobel peace laureates, backed Tsvangirai, calling on the summit to reject the election because of the violence.

Both Tsvangirai and the group, known as the Elders, called on the AU to appoint a special envoy to mediate in the crisis.

South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said Zimbabwe was deeply divided and polarised after the election.

“Zanu-PF and the MDC must enter into negotiations which will lead to the formation of a transitional government that can extricate Zimbabwe from its current political challenges,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.

It said neither Zanu-PF nor the MDC were “able individually to extricate Zimbabwe from the current impasse”.

Analysts believe Mugabe ignored international condemnation and went ahead with the vote so he could negotiate with Tsvangirai from a position of strength.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has urged international action against Mugabe’s government, including United Nations-authorised sanctions and an arms embargo.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon believes the election did not reflect the will of Zimbabwe’s people and the result was not legitimate, his spokesperson said on Monday.—Reuters

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