Zim delays summit on African free-trade deal

Zimbabwe has postponed a summit of Africa’s largest trading block, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), which had been scheduled to launch a regional customs union in December, the trade minister said on Thursday.

Zimbabwe had planned to host the summit in Victoria Falls to discuss boosting trade and improving food security across the region, even though its own economy is in freefall and nearly half its people need emergency United Nations food aid.

The summit of Comesa will take place in the first half of 2009, Trade Minister Obert Mpofu said in the government-mouthpiece Herald newspaper.

Mpofu said the delay was to allow more time for the 19 member countries to negotiate the harmonisation of tariffs within the planned customs union, which was agreed at a summit in Kenya last year.

”The consultations … will go beyond December 6 2008, which is when the Comesa customs union was scheduled to be launched,” Mpofu said.

The timing of the summit, already delayed from May, falls at a sensitive political moment for Zimbabwe after disputed presidential elections left the government in limbo.

President Robert Mugabe and movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed a power-sharing deal two months ago, but the talks have stalled in a dispute over how to share the most important cabinet posts.

Mugabe this week insisted that he would soon form a government despite objections from Tsvangirai, who has accused the 84-year-old leader of sidelining the opposition even though it holds a majority in parliament.

Zimbabwe originally postponed the Comesa summit in May after Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in a first-round presidential vote, sparking deadly political unrest targeting opposition supporters.

The violence prompted Tsvangirai to pull out of a June run-off.

The summit was expected to finalise steps towards forming the customs union, after the 19 countries agreed to allow free movement of capital goods with a 10% tax on intermediate products and a 25% tax for finished goods.

Comesa represents about 400-million people, linking Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, Zanu-PF asked Mugabe on Wednesday to form a new government with immediate effect, a fresh sign that a power-sharing agreement with political rivals is collapsing.

”The Zanu-PF politburo unanimously resolved that President Mugabe should, with immediate effect, proceed to form an inclusive government in compliance with resolutions of the Southern African Development Community [SADC] summit,” senior party official and Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu told reporters.

A summit of regional leaders said on Sunday that Zimbabwe should form a joint government immediately and the main rivals should share control of the disputed Home Affairs Ministry to try to end the impasse.

Tsvangirai rejected the 15-nation SADC proposal, saying Mugabe’s ”utter contempt” for the MDC meant it was certain to fail.

MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa on Wednesday declined to comment on Zanu-PF’s move, saying his party would decide on whether to continue power-sharing talks and its participation in a unity government after a leadership meeting on Friday. — AFP, Reuters

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