/ 1 November 2007

Africa rallies to Mugabe over summit

A failed British bid to exclude Robert Mugabe from an upcoming European summit played straight into the hands of the Zimbabwean president, who gained instinctive support from his African peers, analysts said.

Portugal, the hosts of the Europe-Africa summit on December 8 and 9, said on Wednesday that invitations would be issued to all African states who would be free to decide themselves on the composition of their delegation.

With Mugabe having already announced he would attend the summit if Zimbabwe is invited, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is now likely to stay at home.

A senior source at the European Union mission in Harare said on Thursday there was now no reason why Mugabe could not attend even though he is subject to a travel ban.

“The invitation letters for African states will be distributed by Alpha Omar Konare [the chairperson of the African Union Commission] and it is up to Zimbabwe to decide who will attend,” the source said.

“There is no reason, despite the travel ban, why he can’t go.”

The move comes after his fellow regional leaders, some of whom are no fans of Mugabe, vowed to boycott the Lisbon gathering if Mugabe was kept off the invitation list at a time when South African President Thabo Mbeki is trying to mediate between the Harare government and the opposition.

“Gordon Brown may be right in raising the issues he raises, about the lack of rule of law and state repression in Zimbabwe, but the timing and methodology was wrong,” said independent political analyst Takura Zhangazha.

“There is bound to be a fall-out if such statements are made about an African state by a Western leader.”

Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, came to realise he was merely playing into Mugabe’s hands by launching personal attacks on the 83-year-old, who has heaped most of the blame for Zimbabwe’s economic woes on the former colonial power.

On a farewell trip to Africa in May, Blair refrained from making any fresh criticism of Mugabe and gave his full backing to Mbeki’s mediation efforts, a task which was entrusted to him by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The current chairperson of SADC, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, embarrassed Mugabe earlier this year by comparing the situation in Zimbabwe — where inflation now stands at nearly 8 000% — to the sinking of the Titanic.

However, Mwanawasa was among those who pledged to boycott Lisbon if Mugabe was excluded, with the government in Pretoria openly bristling at the idea of Europe trying to “determine who constitutes the African delegation”.

According to Chris Maroleng, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, the decision to invite Mugabe was inevitable once his fellow leaders stood side by side with him.

“I think it’s unfortunate that Gordon Brown has taken this approach because it simply plays into Mugabe’s rhetoric against the UK,” he said.

“He always uses these opportunities to highlight what he believes is an attempt at regime change by the West.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among the EU leaders who backed Mugabe’s participation, telling Mbeki in Pretoria recently that the summit would be an opportunity to “raise all our criticisms” about the “disaster” in Zimbabwe.

Takavafira Zhou, a university lecturer in Masvingo in southern Harare, said Mugabe’s attendance should be used to confront him about “the breakdown of the rule of law and lack of good governance in Zimbabwe”, but he doubted that such criticism would be forthcoming from his African peers.

“The tendency among African leaders is to sympathise with Mugabe because of the spirit of pan-Africanism and Mugabe can also cash in on that and use his presence at the summit to canvass African support.”

Augustine Timbe, a columnist for the government-controlled Chronicle newspaper, said the invitation would be savoured by Mugabe as proof that the rest of Europe does not share London’s antipathy.

“It’s a diplomatic victory for Zimbabwe and a lesson to Mr Gordon Brown that employing the Blair tactics of trying to involve the EU in a purely bilateral stand-off does not work,” said Timbe. — AFP