His arrival may have been low-key, but veteran Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is likely to steal the spotlight at this weekend’s European Union-Africa summit with his first trip to Europe in more than two years.
Usually the subject of a travel ban from the EU, Mugabe touched down in Lisbon late on Thursday for a visit that ensured Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown will stay away from the first such summit in seven years.
After being whisked away from the airport via a side entrance, Mugabe (83) headed to a city-centre hotel where he spent the morning.
”He has no immediate plans for today,” presidential spokesperson George Charamba said. ”We are just waiting for the official programme.”
Brown had been leading a push for Mugabe — subject to an EU travel ban since allegedly rigging his re-election in 2002 — to be kept off the invitation list. His campaign was undermined when other African leaders threatened to boycott the gathering in an act of solidarity.
An editorial on Friday in the Zimbabwean government mouthpiece the Herald portrayed Mugabe’s presence as a diplomatic slap in the face for former colonial power Britain.
”Many countries in Europe have come to the realisation that Britain is suffering from an apparently incurable colonial master hangover and wants everyone to join it in its denial state,” said the paper. ”This realisation has left Britain in the cold, harping about unsubstantiated human rights abuses.”
Britain indeed renewed its criticism of Mugabe, with Foreign Secretary David Miliband and International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander using an opinion piece in a Portuguese daily to denounce his ”brutal tyranny”.
While supporting elections due in March next year, the ministers said the polls have to be accompanied by a series of moves to be seen as free and fair.
”The abolition of draconian security laws, an end to violence against the opposition, a respect for press freedom, independent observers and an independent electoral commission” are all vital pre-requisites, they wrote.
Even though a discussion on the situation in Zimbabwe is not formally scheduled, Zimbabwe is ready to defend itself.
”Zimbabwe has an excellent case to present, so if there are any attempts to attack Zimbabwe, that will be a wonderful opportunity for Zimbabwe to present its case,” Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi told journalists last week.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is due to speak in a debate on human rights on Saturday, has vowed that ”the issue of Zimbabwe will not be swept under the carpet at the summit”.
South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu said it is vital that Europe speak up as silence would be interpreted as condoning violations.
”Since he has been invited I would hope that the European Union will speak without any euphemism on human rights which are being violated so blatantly in Zimbabwe,” he told Portuguese radio.
Rights groups have arranged a series of demonstrations against Mugabe to be held during the course of the summit.
”We want to put pressure on EU and AU [African Union] leaders at the summit so that they in turn can put pressure on Mugabe to act on our demands. His presence will not make any difference unless this message is put across to him,” said Promise Mkwananzi, spokesperson of the Zimbabwe National Students’ Union.
Mugabe was last in Europe for a meeting organised by the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in October 2005. — Sapa-AFP