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

Mugabe Row Endangers EU-Africa Summit

African leader dig their heels in and demand that the Zimbabwean leader should be allowed to appear in person.
By Joseph Sithole
Plans for a European Union-Africa summit scheduled for December have been put at risk by a conflict over whether President Robert Mugabe will be allowed to attend as Zimbabwe’s official representative.

Some EU nations, notably Britain, have threatened to boycott the summit if Mugabe is invited, while a number of African governments have warned that they will not send representatives if Mugabe is prevented from attending the Lisbon meeting.

The controversy illustrates the divide between western states that accuse Mugabe of committing human rights abuses and ruining Zimbabwe’s once-prosperous economy, and the African continent, where many view him as a latter-day Robin Hood standing up to imperialism.

The 83-year old president is still seen as a comrade-in-arms in much of Africa, except in Zimbabwe itself, where many accuse him of presiding over an eight-year economic and political crisis that has seen unemployment reach 80 per cent and inflation soar to an official 3,700 per cent year on year.

The divergence of opinion about Mugabe is reflected in the current standoff between the EU and Africa over whether he should be allowed into Portugal for the summit, despite the travel restrictions placed on him and his top officials by the EU and the United States.

The last EU-Africa summit was held in 2000, as a meeting scheduled for 2003 was scrapped because of conflict over whether Mugabe could attend. The events are intended to discuss aid and development, which the Europeans often frame within the context of human rights and democracy.

African nations, particularly those in the Southern African Development Community, SADC, led by regional economic powerhouse South Africa, have said they will not attend the summit if Zimbabwe is excluded.

The EU’s external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner last week suggested that Zimbabwe could be represented by a senior government official such as the foreign minister, as a way of breaking the deadlock.

“We should not let our political relationship with Africa fall apart because of Mugabe,” Ferrero-Waldner told the German daily Financial Times Deutschland.

However, the SADC has rejected this compromise.

South Africa and other regional states insist they want Zimbabwe to be represented at the highest level, in order to avoid setting a precedent where African leaders to whom Europe objects are singled out for punishment.

The current SADC chair, Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa, underlined this position when he claimed Zimbabwe’s problems were “exaggerated” by the media.

The African Union, AU, is taking a similar stand.

“It would not be fair not to invite a member of the African Union," Ghana’s foreign minister Akwasi Osei Adjei, whose country holds the AU chair, said last week in remarks quoted by Reuters. "I believe we are coming with all the members of the African Union, the heads of state of the African Union So definitely the invitation [to Mugabe] will be issued.”

The host country and EU president, Portugal, has been ambivalent about whether it will invite the Zimbabwean leader.

As an EU official acknowledged, “Almost all Africans want Mugabe to be present. The Africans are really making this an issue. It could be difficult to sort this out.”

A political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe, John Makumbe, told Voice of America that one side would have to give.

He said the EU needed the summit as it wanted to resolve the problem of illegal migrants from northern Africa flocking into countries such as Portugal and Spain in search of a better life.

“Unfortunately, they will have to accept President Mugabe at the summit if they want that issue discussed,” said Makumbe.

Makumbe said African leaders were unlikely to back down on the issue – not least because many were potentially vulnerable to criticism themselves, so found it hard to be too tough on Mugabe.

He said the only compromise was for EU leaders to brace themselves for Mugabe to be present, and try to raise their human rights concerns with him.

Another political scientist, who requested anonymity, agreed that African leaders would settle for nothing less, adding that the EU and the United States had laid themselves open to charges of double standards by failing to act uniformly in all political disputes in Africa.

He cited recent cases where the international community did not take resolute action where there were allegations of vote-rigging and other electoral problems.

“There were, and still are, problems in Lesotho about the way Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili was elected [in February 2007], but the EU and the US have said nothing. There were allegations that [outgoing president] Olusegun Obasanjo fixed the Nigerian election [in April 2007] to have his favourite candidate elected, and nothing happened to him,” he said.

“There was an even bigger disaster in the DRC, where over 200 people were killed in protests soon after the [2006] elections when rebels loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba tried to stir civil unrest alleging that Joseph Kabila had stolen the election. We didn’t hear any international outcry about illegality and sanctions.”

He concluded, “This lends credence to those who claim that the dispute with Zimbabwe has been reduced to a personal vendetta with Mugabe for taking over white-owned commercial farms more than it is to do with human rights violations or vote-rigging.

“So come December, European leaders will have to share the table with Mugabe - or there will be no summit.”

Analysts say the EU is desperate for this year’s summit to succeed. Apart from the migration issue, there is concern that Europe and the US have lost ground to China in recent years, and the December summit would offer a forum for discussing how to deal with this.

China consumes substantial amounts of African oil and minerals such as copper. In return, the continent offers a market for Chinese exports – and at a political level, diplomatic allies in international institutions such as the United Nations Security Council.

Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Tajikistan’s Next President: No Surprises
Experts’ assumptions that the country’s leader Emomali Rahmon would nominate his son for this election are disproved.
The Belarus Awakening, as Seen from Georgia
The Belarus Awakening, as Seen from Georgia