Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Lisbon Summit Furore

Dispute over European-Africa summit suggests both continents are driven more by self-interest than human rights, analysts say.
By Meshack Ndodana
The controversy around whether Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe should attend the European Union-Africa summit brings into sharp relief the dilemma European nations face in wanting to beat China to the Africa’s resources on the one hand and enforcing the principles of human rights and democracy on the other.

Judging by Africa’s response in the current standoff between the continent and Europe over Mugabe’s presence at the summit on December 9 in Lisbon, Portugal, analysts believe that British premier Gordon Brown may have spoken too soon when he threatened a boycott if Mugabe was invited.

For it is now Africa which has taken a position to boycott the summit if the Zimbabwean leader is not allowed to break his travel ban to Europe and attend. Even the Ghanaian leader John Kufuor, who recently described the situation in Zimbabwe as “an embarrassment to the African conscience”, has now made a volte-face, saying Africa is indivisible.

Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa, the current chair of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, set the tone when he announced two weeks ago that he would boycott the Lisbon summit if Mugabe was not invited. South Africa, whose president, Thabo Mbeki, is viewed as a close ally of Mugabe, has adopted a similar position.

German chancellor Angela Merkel has said the controversy over Mugabe’s presence in Portugal cannot be allowed to derail the summit which has not been held for seven years, partly because of the Mugabe issue. She proposed a compromise, suggesting “engagement” rather than confrontation. She said Mugabe had a right to attend and suggested the forum be used to tackle him on issues such as human and property rights.

This would give him the chance to state his position. But the crux of the issue, say analysts, is that both continents are driven more by self-interest than any abiding principles on human rights.

“Africans want aid from rich European countries and so badly want the summit to take place,” said an Africa diplomat in the capital Harare. “On the other hand Europeans want to contain the advance of the Chinese juggernaut on the African continent and that can only be achieved through engagement - not confrontation with African leaders.”

A political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe said there was a diplomatic tug-of-war. “Africans are beginning to leverage their resources against foreign interests,” he said.

“Both China and Europe are interested in African raw materials and African leaders are trying to play them one against the other to extract the best deal whenever possible.

“Gordon Brown may have spoken too soon when he adopted a hard position on Zimbabwe because he wasn’t fully aware of the issues at stake. He was responding to restive British public opinion which wants to quickly forget about what they regard as [former British premier Tony] Blair’s double failures in Zimbabwe and Iraq. Unfortunately, the rest of Europe feels it is losing out because of the contest of egos between successive British prime ministers and Mugabe.”

He said Mugabe had already scored a point against Brown by driving a wedge between Britain and the rest of Europe, given Portugal and Germany’s common position that Mugabe should be engaged rather than isolated.

He said Brown had inherited “a war he doesn’t understand from Blair and [United States president George] Bush”. Africans were taking a more belligerent stance than previously, and were trying to set the terms because they realise there is a huge contest for their resources, said the analyst.

The African diplomat added, “They see Europe as nursing the same interests which inspired the colonisation of the continent but which are now cloaked as human rights. The difference is that in colonial times it was divide and rule; now it is divide and depose. Britain and the US want to decide who should rule and who should be deposed across the whole world.”

The diplomat referred to comments made by Mbeki at the emergency SADC summit on Zimbabwe in March when he said there were clandestine efforts by “regime change” sponsors, such as Britain and the US, which wanted to discredit all liberation movement governments in the region. Mbeki reportedly said his country had refused to censure Mugabe’s government for assaulting and detaining his political opponents because the opposition was a surrogate of those who wanted to get rid of the ruling ZANU-PF government.

“Today it is Zimbabwe and we don’t know who is next,” Mbeki said then, calling for the lifting of western sanctions on Zimbabwe.

A human rights activist in Harare said the continent faced a dilemma in the contest between China and Europe for Africa’s resources. He said because most African leaders were dictators, they were happy to welcome China, which didn’t moralise about human rights.

China has invested almost 48 billion US dollars in the past few years in Africa - from Zambian mines to oil extraction in Angola and Sudan. Its policy of non-interference in the affairs of host nations has endeared it to many dictatorships, including in Sudan where China has not raised a word about the government-sponsored genocide in the Darfur region, which has killed over 200,000 people since 2003.

“In the end it is going to be a choice between commercial interests and principles of human rights,” said the activist. “The danger is that in the heat of competition for resources Europe might eventually be forced to lower the bar on human rights as a precondition for doing business, if their companies discover that they are losing out to the Chinese. That would be a huge tragedy for the human rights movement.”

The diplomat said Brown had in fact “lost the plot” on the dispute over Mugabe’s presence in Portugal. He said attitudes were softening even in Europe after “a realisation rather too late that the age of gunboat diplomacy had passed.

“Many leaders in Europe now realise that the stance adopted by America and Britain on Zimbabwe has failed, hence calls now to support Thabo Mbeki’s mediation efforts in Zimbabwe. They realise that the military options in Iraq and Afghanistan have not only been disastrous but also a cause for serious embarrassment.”

He said it was likely Brown would be forced to climb down to save the summit because there was no chance of Africa compromising on Mugabe, “Europeans have more to lose in terms of influence after investing so much over the years in infrastructure and administrative institutions. On the other hand Africans see this as a chance to deal on equal terms with their former colonisers and see President Mugabe as their most articulate and fearless spokesman.”

Meshack Ndodana is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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