|1. July 2008
African Union summit: Criticism remains muted
African leaders pointedly avoided public criticism of Robert Mugabe yesterday as he arrived in Egypt for a summit expected to press him to negotiate with the opposition that his Zanu-PF party bullied out of last week's election. The African Union summit allowed the 84-year-old leader to take his seat, despite strong criticism from African election monitors who questioned the legitimacy of Friday's uncontested vote. Some delegates at the meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh said that in private there was little warmth towards Mugabe; but in public there were no statements condemning the violence that propelled him back into office. A draft of a final communique circulating yesterday called only for dialogue. The Associated Press quoted an African diplomat as saying that, in private session, Mugabe was "hugging everyone, pretty much everyone he could get close to". The brutal election campaign that forced his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, to withdraw has been condemned by the UN security council, which may consider new sanctions. In Britain, Tesco last night said it would stop selling Zimbabwean produce "until there is an end to the current political crisis". The supermarket chain said this would affect only about £1m of business but could persuade other retailers to reconsider their position. It would try to minimise the impact on Zimbabwean workers. Other companies including Old Mutual, Barclays, British American Tobacco and Rio Tinto are refusing government demands and continue to do business with Zimbabwe, saying their priority is to serve customers and the community, and look after the financial needs of their staff.
In Sharm el-Sheikh the strongest words in open session came from the UN. Its deputy secretary general, Asha-Rose Migiro, put pressure on African rulers to intervene directly to broker a political settlement. "This is a moment of truth for regional leaders," Migiro said. In London Gordon Brown called on the summit to "make it absolutely clear that there has got to be change" in Zimbabwe. "I think the message that is coming from the whole world is that the so-called elections will not be recognised," he said. Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, offered advice informed by his experience in opposition. "They should suspend him and send peace forces to Zimbabwe to ensure free and fair elections," he said. Inside the conference centre the language, in public, was more circumspect. The host, President Hosni Mubarak, who has jailed many of his opponents and been in power for 27 years, one less than Mugabe, stressed peace, stability and development rather than democracy. Jakaya Kikwete, the Tanzanian president chairing the summit, even referred to the Zimbabwean elections as "historic".
One of Mugabe's toughest critics, the Zambian president, Levy Mwanawasa, was taken to hospital with a suspected stroke before the leaders gathered. According to diplomats in Sharm el-Sheikh there were pointed exchanges in closed session. There was debate over whether to appoint an AU mediator to work with South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, who has been designated broker by the Southern African Development Community. "Mbeki is trying very hard to stop it," said one diplomat. "Mbeki's argument is that this is a SADC lead, but the arguments of others is that Kenya shows the need for a full-time mediator." The Foreign Office minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, Lord Malloch-Brown, in Sharm el-Sheikh as an observer, said Britain is seeking fundamental change. "We wouldn't want a solution that condoned or rewarded Mugabe for the violence of the second round. We wouldn't want to start with the premise that occupancy of State House is nine-tenths of possession. We believe Tsvangirai should enter the negotiations as the senior figure."