Sharp division has emerged in Zanu-PF over Zimbabwe's decision to boycott the European Union-Africa summit as a result of the EU's decision to deny Zimbabwe's first lady, Grace Mugabe, an invitation and visa to attend the summit in Brussels, Belgium.
Five senior Zanu-PF officials – three politburo members and two central committee members – who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was unfortunate that the country's long-term needs had been sacrificed for an individual.
The officials also said that Zimbabwe had embarrassed itself because of the manner in which it handled the issue, as it had over estimated its importance and influence in Africa by thinking it could persuade the entire continent to boycott the summit.
President Robert Mugabe and a delegation received invitations and visas to attend the Brussels summit, but Grace was not invited. The foreign affairs ministry added her to the delegation, but her visa request was turned down.
The EU head of delegation to Zimbabwe, Aldo Dell'Ariccia, said Grace's visa was denied because the summit was for heads of states only. He said there were no programmes for spouses and therefore it could not grant the visa as she was on a travel restrictions list.
Handling of the first lady's visa application
Division over the handling of the issue also came to the surface this week during a radio interview with Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Christopher Mutsvangwa, who is also Zimbabwe's former ambassador to China. He accused his boss, Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, and the ministry's permanent secretary, ambassador Joey Bimha, of being reckless in the way they handled the first lady's visa application, resulting in embarrassment for her.
He said the ministry should not have forwarded Grace Mugabe's passport to the Belgian embassy without first using diplomatic channels to explore whether she was going to be granted the visa or not.
The Zimbabwean first lady is not permitted to travel to any European country. Zimbabwe this week tried to influence other countries to boycott the summit, a call that was not heeded by most African nations.
A total of 48 countries are attending the summit in Brussels, which includes 36 African heads of state and government.
A politburo member said that, although the Mugabe family had been embarrassed, Zimbabwe had lost out.
"It's unfortunate that we are continuing on a combative path at a time when we should be reaching out and trying to make as many friends as we can. We cannot afford to continue isolating ourselves, and it's a pity that we are now putting Grace above the country," he said.
"Our major concern should be to revive our economy. We are in dire need of foreign direct investment and an injection of capital, because our people are losing jobs daily due to company closures and retrenchment. We should be seeking partnerships instead of [conducting] petty fights."
Although Zimbabwe's authorities questioned why the EU had invited Morocco, not a member of the African Union, as well as Egypt, which was suspended from the AU, but left out AU members Eritrea and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara), officials insisted that the major reason for the boycott was the embarrassment caused by the visa denial.
"After escalating the matter in the hope that Africa would support the call for [Grace Mugabe] to be given a visa, the country decided to pull out of the summit and therefore miss out on opportunities that may have been available. This was a chance for the country to market itself as an investment destination and we should have at least sent a delegation there, like other countries did, even if the president decided not to go," said a politburo member.
A government official said there was no consultation on the decision to pull out, adding that because many African countries were attending the summit showed that the country had overestimated its influence.
"Look, 36 African heads of state and government are attending the summit. About 50 of the 54 African states are also attending. Zimbabwe is standing alone as the sole country invited, but not represented. Is this not evidence that we are not focused, that we are focusing on trivial issues instead of dealing with the issues affecting our people?" he asked.
"It's such a shame. At the end of it all, the first lady's name has been dragged in the mud, our country has been soiled, and we have missed a good opportunity to market ourselves to potential investors. We claim to be pan-African, so it means we also lost out on the opportunity to shape Africa's relationship with the West."
Zanu-PF applauds Mugabe
Officially, though, Zanu-PF praised Mugabe for boycotting the summit and congratulated President Jacob Zuma "for taking a principled position that is in solidarity with President Mugabe". Zuma did not attend the summit, but sent a representative.
After Zuma questioned the EU's selection criteria for delegates, the Zimbabwean media was awash with reports that South Africa was following Zimbabwe's lead, but Mutsvangwa said this was not the case. "South Africa's foreign policy is too important to be [held] hostage or guided by Zimbabwe. Let's not take false leadership.
"We should not try to position ourselves as if we are the champions of this region. That is not right for Zimbabwe. We should work with other countries and be sensitive to their sensitivities."
Said Zanu-PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo: "The Zanu-PF party wishes to applaud President Robert Mugabe for taking the courageous, firm and principled stance of boycotting the EU-African summit.
"The EU's approach of determining the delegation of African countries at the summit was not only paternalistic and in breach of international law, it [also] went against [a] binding agreement between the EU and Africa to recognise all parties as equals."
Gumbo said Zimbabwe had waged a "long and arduous war against colonialism, and would fiercely resist any attempt to perpetuate Western domination in Africa no matter how [it was] disguised".
Zanu-PF has had a frosty relationship with the EU since 2000, when the country embarked on its land-reform programme. The EU imposed travel restrictions on the Mugabe family and top government officials.
The travel restrictions have been lifted on certain officials, but Mugabe and his wife are still prohibited, although he would have been allowed to travel to Belgium for this summit.