By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, June 30 -- African leaders allowed Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to take his seat at a summit here Monday, but controversy over the coercion and violence surrounding his recent reelection prompted some of the leaders to begin discussing how to end his 28-year rule.
Although formal talks about Mugabe at the African Union meeting were put off until Tuesday, Ghanaian President John Kufuor said he and other leaders were concerned "by what we saw in the prelude to the election, in terms of the violence and the extreme intimidation" of voters.
Mugabe was inaugurated Sunday after a vote that African Union monitors and other international election observers said Monday was marred by harassment and attacks against voters. Backers of Mugabe's party had pledged to murder opposition supporters and their families. More than 80 people died in election violence.
Mugabe, 84, a heroic figure to many Africans for his struggle against colonial rule, has led Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. In recent years, his supporters have crushed the political opposition and his policies have destroyed the economy. Some inflation estimates exceed 1 million percent.
Many African and other international leaders denounced Friday's presidential runoff, which Mugabe won after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out, fearing further violence against his supporters. The Bush administration announced new economic sanctions and called last week for an international arms embargo against Zimbabwe.
Mugabe came to the summit, in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, vowing to confront any fellow African leader who challenged his right to stay in power. He warned at a final election rally that he wanted "to see the finger that is pointed at me and I will check if that finger is clean or dirty."
He strolled into the summit Monday amid three African leaders, including African Union President Jakaya Tikwete, the leader of Tanzania. Tikwete opened the summit by acknowledging that Zimbabwe's people had voted and saying he "wanted to commiserate with them on their suffering." He did not recognize Mugabe as the victor.
South Africa has played a lead role in seeking to persuade Mugabe to hold free elections and to treat Zimbabweans more humanely. But top African figures, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, say South Africa failed to push Mugabe hard enough.
African foreign ministers, meeting on the eve of the summit, refused to endorse a South African draft resolution that merely expressed concern over the elections in Zimbabwe, participants and observers in the meeting said.
African leaders are considering tougher actions. Proposals include a power-sharing deal with the opposition that would ease Mugabe from power; the appointment of African Union mediators to replace those from South Africa; sanctions; and deployment of African peacekeepers.
The governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia, two West African nations where international sponsorship of elections was a crucial part of recovery from civil wars, were among the most vocal in lobbying other African governments for tough action, according to observers at Sunday night's meeting of foreign ministers.
Zimbabwe's foreign minister told counterparts at the meeting that reports of voter intimidation were exaggerations by foreign news media and the U.S. government, according to two observers of the session who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Liberia's delegation countered that Zimbabwean leaders were not the best people from whom to seek a true account of events in their country. Citing their own experience, the Liberians said their leaders were saying everything was fine right before they fled the rebels surrounding them, according to the two observers.
The leaders calling for tough action toward Mugabe's government had no guarantees of success Tuesday.
The predecessor of the African Union, the Organization of African Unity, long had a reputation as a dictators' club where leaders who had come to power in coups could for the most part avoid public criticism of their internal affairs by fellow African officials.
On Monday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the summit host, failed to include Zimbabwe among the list of countries that he told the summit had pressing problems for the African Union to confront.
Mubarak, who came to power in 1981, one year after Mugabe, last won reelection in 2005 and jailed both of his leading challengers after the race.
The African Union, founded in 2002, has been more assertive in confronting allegations of wrongdoing by African leaders within their own countries.
African Union sanctions in 2005 were instrumental in compelling Togo's new president to hold elections to approve him as successor to his father, the West African country's military-backed ruler for four decades. African Union members have challenged Sudan's leaders over Darfur and sent African troops to that region as well as Liberia, Congo and other nations.
Africa today overall is more stable and peaceful than in the 1990s, when it was bloodied by wars. Several countries are achieving stability and democratic change.
But many of the leaders who would consider any action against Mugabe on Tuesday took power through coups, and have held it by quashing the political opposition, as Mugabe did. They include Moammar Gaddafi, Libya's leader since the 1960s, who attended only the first hours of Monday's session. In orange robes, he sat next to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won an election after rebels and U.S. and African troops helped force out a longtime dictator.
The U.N. deputy secretary general, Asha-Rose Migiro, told the African leaders that Zimbabwe's crisis was the gravest threat facing southern Africa and urged them to confront it. "This is a moment of truth for regional leaders," she said.