/ 2 June 2008

Mugabe in Rome for food summit

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe flew into Rome for a global food summit on Sunday, his first official trip abroad since elections condemned by Western and opposition leaders as fraudulent.

The unexpected presence of Mugabe, accused by domestic critics of running down agriculture and causing food shortages in his own country, could offer a rare opportunity for direct contacts with Western leaders. But Zimbabwean state television, announcing his departure, made no suggestion of bilateral talks.

Mugabe, facing a June 27 presidential run-off against Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, arrived at Rome airport with his wife and a large delegation of officials. He made no comment to reporters.

The European Union has a travel ban on the veteran leader, facing new criticism over an alleged security crackdown against the opposition, because of his human rights record. Since the FAO summit is taking place under a United Nations umbrella, however, the Rome meeting would be open to him.

Around 60 heads of state and government, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who will be making his first trip to Western Europe as Iran’s president, are expected to meet in Rome from June 3 to 5 to discuss global problems of poverty and malnutrition caused by steep rises in food prices.

In 2005 Mugabe attended the FAO’s 60 anniversary celebrations where he railed against United States President George Bush and then British prime minister Tony Blair, calling them ”international terrorists” and comparing them to Adolf Hitler.

Gerry Jackson, from the expatriate Zimbabwe radio station SW Radio Africa that broadcasts from London, told Reuters: ”It is outrageous that he [Mugabe] has been invited to any international forum when he is involved in a state-sponsored, incredibly violent campaign against the opposition.”

A British Foreign Office spokesperson in London, asked for reaction to Mugabe’s Rome visit, told Reuters: ”It is a matter of concern to us and we would prefer that he did not attend.”

Uncertain future

Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 and is the only leader most Zimbabweans have known, will arrive in Rome with an uncertain political future.

After a lengthy delay in releasing the March 23 presidential poll results, figures from Zimbabwe’s electoral commission showed Tsvangirai won more votes but not enough to avoid a run-off. The opposition complained of vote rigging and said Tsvangirai won the contest outright.

The controversy over the election is only the latest in a series of ballot disputes over the years but it is the most serious and analysts say it illustrates the deep frustration Zimbabweans feel about his handling of the country’s finances.

Zimbabwe’s economy is a shambles. Inflation is estimated at 165 000% while unemployment is at 80% and there are chronic shortages of basic necessities including food and fuel.

About 3,5-million people have fled to neighbouring countries to escape poverty and malnutrition.

Mugabe accuses Western countries of sabotaging Zimbabwe’s economy through sanctions imposed to punish him and top ruling party officials for alleged rights abuses and election fraud.

Mugabe (84) is viewed by many in Africa as an independence hero. But critics say he has run the country into the ground through mismanagement of its once thriving economy and the 2000 redistribution of critical commercial farms to landless blacks with little or no experience in operating them.

Mugabe’s last trip to Europe in December for a Commonwealth meeting in Portugal was boycotted by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to protest the Zimbabwean leader’s participation.

Mugabe was in Italy in 2005, when he attended Pope John Paul II’s funeral. – Reuters 2008.