/ 1 November 2007

Bruiser Bob relishes diplomatic coup

A decision by the European Union to allow Robert Mugabe to a summit is a rare diplomatic coup for Zimbabwe’s leader whose relations with the West have plummeted almost as fast as his country’s economy.

The 83-year-old, subject to an EU travel ban for allegedly rigging his 2002 re-election, has already indicated he will attend the Africa-Europe summit in Lisbon on what he is unlikely to regard as a fence-mending mission.

”I will go if I get the invitation,” he said in a television interview last week before Wednesday’s confirmation by Portugal, current holder of the EU presidency, that Zimbabwe would indeed be invited to the December 8 and 9 meeting.

In power since the former British colony won independence in 1980, Mugabe has shown no sign of mellowing in his old age and likes to boast that he can still pack a ”knockout punch”.


Meanwhile, Mugabe has signed into law a compromise Bill giving him room to pick a successor, a government notice said on Thursday.

The Constitutional Amendment Bill — agreed between Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in September — allows Mugabe to choose a successor if he were to retire mid-term by empowering Parliament, which is dominated by his party, to vote for a president.

The constitutional changes stemmed from ongoing talks between the MDC and the government, which are being brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki as part of a regional drive to resolve Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis.

The MDC has said it would keep pressuring the government to change the Constitution and repeal tough security and media laws.

Master on human rights?

On his last trip to the West, Mugabe used his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York as a platform to denounce United States President George Bush as a hypocrite whose hands were dripping with blood.

”He kills in Iraq. He kills in Afghanistan. And this is supposed to be our master on human rights?”

It was a characteristically defiant performance from Africa’s longest-serving leader who is standing for another five-year term next year.

Despite the country’s economic woes — inflation stands at nearly 8 000% and unemployment is at 80% — street protests have attracted only patchy support and the opposition has been wrapped up in internal squabbles since its leadership was assaulted by the security forces in March.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has vowed to boycott Lisbon if Mugabe attends, has found that denounciations of Mugabe are water off a duck’s back for a man who blames Zimbabwe’s problems on the former colonial power.

Relations between London and Harare were generally warm in the first two decades after independence but soured when Mugabe embarked on a controversial programme to expropriate land still largely held by the white minority.

About 4 000 farmers were forced to hand over their land in what he trumpeted as a programme to right the injustices of the colonial era.

The land reform scheme and his subsequent crackdowns on opposition members, judges and journalists triggered an uproar and ”smart sanctions”, including travel bans, against Mugabe and his inner circle by the EU and US.

An intellectual who initially embraced Marxism, Mugabe was praised when he won the election that ended white minority rule in 1980, a few weeks after Zimbabwe gained independence.

Born in 1924, Mugabe’s first job was as a teacher but he took his first political paces when he enrolled at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of Southern Africa’s future black nationalist leaders.

Mugabe then resumed teaching, moving to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Ghana before returning to what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1960.

As a member of various nationalist parties which were banned by the white-minority government, he was detained with other leaders in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison camps or jail.

He used that period to consolidate his position in the Zimbabwe African National Union and emerged from prison in 1974 as Zanu leader. He then left for Mozambique, from where his banned party was launching guerrilla attacks on Rhodesia.

Economic sanctions and war forced Rhodesian leader Ian Smith to negotiate.

After Zanu-PF, which drew most of its support from the Shona majority, swept to power in the 1980 election, Mugabe announced a policy of reconciliation with the country’s white minority but most subsequently left.

Mugabe also crushed dissent among the minority Ndebele people with his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, which killed an estimated 20 000 suspected ”dissidents”.

In his early years Mugabe was widely credited with improving health and education for the black majority. But social services later declined and the HIV/Aids epidemic shattered gains in healthcare. – AFP, Reuters