|27. June 2008
Divergent opinions among African foreign ministers at AU meeting
African Union (AU) foreign ministers bickered behind closed doors today over how to handle Zimbabwe as they prepared for a summit next week under the shadow of its political crisis. AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping urged ministers to leave it to heads of state when they gather on Monday to pass judgment on Friday’s one-man presidential run-off in Zimbabwe that the opposition has derided as shameful. The Zimbabwean delegation asked to be able to address the meeting without any subsequent debate, but other AU members insisted they wanted a full discussion of the political violence that prompted opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai to withdraw, giving veteran incumbent Robert Mugabe certain victory. "We are waiting for the summit for the heads of state to make important declarations on Zimbabwe," Ping told the opening session in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in his only direct reference to the crisis.
The session was preceded by a "breakfast meeting among member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) under Angolan chairmanship but it found no common position," one participant said. South African President Thabo Mbeki has been mediating between the Harare government and opposition under SADC auspices, but he has been criticised by some African governments for not being firm enough with Mugabe. Other AU member states want at all costs to avoid any descent into civil war in a country that was once one of the continent’s economic powerhouses. After the opening session, Ping held a 15-minute separate meeting with the Zimbabwean delegation. During a closed-door session Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi then asked to be allowed to make a statement without it being followed by any debate, drawing strong opposition from other members including Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone, a delegate told AFP.
"After a discussion lasting more than an hour and a half, these governments insisted that they wanted to hold a debate and to hear from the SADC," the delegate said. Ping retorted that "negotiations were still under way to form a government of national unity but added that he had not received the latest information on the progress of the negotiations." The meeting then adjourned until the afternoon when it was due to hear South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma speak on behalf of Mbeki, the SADC mediator. Sources close to the AU commission said that the bloc’s Peace and Security Council would hold a special meeting on Zimbabwe in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday. The AU commission chairman had expressed "grave concern" about the situation in Zimbabwe in the run-up to today’s meeting, but in his opening speech Ping confined his comments to general remarks about the problems of democratisation in Africa.
"In recent years we have seen significant progress on the road to democracy, good governance and the rule of law, but we still face numerous challenges in these areas," he said. "The major challenge facing our continent is to ensure that elections do not lead to disturbances and/or violent and often bloody disputes." As well as Zimbabwe, the last remark was an allusion to Kenya’s disputed presidential election last December which triggered political violence in which more than 1,500 people died before a compromise was brokered between the rival sides. Ping said elections should "not be allowed to become sources of instability that threaten social-economic and political harmony in our countries." Aides said the commission chairman was determined "at all costs to avoid civil war" in Zimbabwe. "We’ll wait for the outcome of the election and then we’ll see where we stand," one aide said.