By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, July 1 -- A defiant President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe on Tuesday fended off an effort by African leaders to sanction him for his country's recent election violence, telling them that their claims to power were no more legitimate than his.
President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal said Mugabe chastised another head of state during a closed-door session Tuesday night for having "worse elections than I did." The discussion pitted Mugabe against scores of his African peers, said Wade and other participants.
A two-day summit of the 53-nation African Union that was dominated by talk of Zimbabwe's political crisis ended with leaders issuing no public rebuke.
Instead, African leaders encouraged Mugabe to enter into dialogue and form a power-sharing government with Zimbabwe's opposition. After intense Western pressure to do more against Mugabe, the leaders failed to hold a planned news conference and left without speaking to reporters.
Mugabe's escape from any censure fulfilled the prediction his spokesman, George Charamba, had made to reporters earlier Tuesday: "He came here as president of Zimbabwe and he'll go home as president of Zimbabwe."
Western critics of Mugabe's government "can go and hang a thousand times," Charamba added.
Mugabe, 84, came to the summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh three days after his supporters forced Zimbabweans to the polls to vote for him in a presidential runoff. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who won 48 percent to Mugabe's 43 percent in the initial round of voting in March, pulled out of the runoff for fear of further violence against his supporters.
Accounts of intimidation and killings during the runoff campaign crystallized concerns in Africa and around the world that Zimbabwe was nearing political and economic collapse. More than 80 people were killed in election violence.
Mugabe's defiance at the summit represented a high-profile setback for those pushing African leaders to move beyond their reputation as a club dominated by heads of state who seized power by force and have ruled for decades since.
African leaders traditionally have avoided public criticism of one another's internal affairs, out of reluctance to see their own records on rights and governance scrutinized.
This was the African leaders' "moment of truth," U.N. Deputy Secretary General Asha-Rose Migiro told African Union chiefs at the summit's opening, as she urged them to take firm action on Zimbabwe.
Tuesday showed that the reputation of the club still holds, said Wade, the Senegalese leader. "That's the reason every time there has been no big wave of criticism for this man. . . . A lot of people did not dare speak out because they were afraid they would have Mr. Mugabe's harsh response."
In Tuesday's closed-door meeting, "Mugabe let people know he is not the worst-elected head of state," Wade said.
When President Umaru Yar'Adua of Nigeria confronted Mugabe over the Zimbabwe election, Mugabe told the leader that Nigeria's own election was dirtier, Wade said.
Mugabe had come to the summit promising to challenge his critics on their own records. The warning increased African leaders' reluctance to interfere in the affairs of another African nation, an African diplomat said.
"It created a certain unease . . . with respect to the sovereignty of their own countries," said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his president was the only official from his country authorized to speak to the media.
In the end, Nigeria and Zimbabwe's neighbor Botswana were among the nations pushing hardest for action against Mugabe's government, according to diplomats.
In a statement to the African leaders, Vice President Mompati Merafhe of Botswana said, "The outcome of these elections does not confer legitimacy on the government of President Mugabe."
One of Mugabe's most effective opponents, Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia, suffered a stroke and was rushed to a hospital shortly after he arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh. He did not attend the summit.
In Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change rejected proposals for dialogue or power-sharing.
Friday's "sham" election "completely exterminated any prospects of a negotiated settlement," the party said in a statement Tuesday.
"It is now the firm view of the MDC that those who claim they have got a mandate to govern should govern."
The top U.S. envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazier, said Monday that the Bush administration opposes a power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe in part because it believes Mugabe has lost the moral authority to govern.
The United States imposed new sanctions on Zimbabwe after the election. Many other Western nations condemned the vote.
The United States has pushed for U.N. sanctions against Mugabe's government as well. China, a member of the U.N. Security Council, made that prospect seem unlikely Tuesday when it said that Zimbabwe's problems should be left to its people to solve.