16 January 2002

Southern Africa: 'Mugabe Can Tell Us to Go to Hell,' SADC Leaders Admit

Johannesburg — The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has come under fire for not being tough enough on President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe at its specially-convened regional summit in Blantyre, Malawi, this week.

Zimbabwe remained centre-stage at the meeting Monday, when the southern African leaders called on President Robert Mugabe to ensure a credible and proper presidential election in March and welcomed his assurances that the poll would be peaceful.

In his opening address, the host president and current SADC chairman, Malawi’s Bakili Muluzi said: "As the date of the presidential elections in Zimbabwe has been announced, we are very hopeful that the elections will be peaceful, free, fair and transparent. As a matter of fact, what is important in any election is not just the election day, but the entire election process, from preparation to the vote counting and the announcement of the result."

The summit concluded late Monday with President Muluzi telling journalists "Let us give Zimbabwe a chance". "They have made a commitment to us, as SADC, and President Mugabe assured us several times that he would like to have free and fair elections. So we believe that there will be free and fair elections. So let us wait and see. I assure you that all of us will take an interest to make sure that whatever has been promised is adhered to," Muluzi told a news briefing.

Asked if they could trust Mugabe to keep his promise, Muluzi said: "I raised that question myself with him. He said, 'It will be done’ and I take his word for it."

Regional confidence in Mugabe was expressed, despite the fact that his governing Zanu-PF party succeeded in pushing tough electoral and security legislation in Zimbabwe last week, which the opposition says will restrict its chances of campaigning freely.

Western governments and Mugabe’s opponents want South Africa, the regional power broker, and SADC, to get tough with the Zimbabwean leader. Mugabe has remained defiant despite international condemnation and, on Monday, avoided the imposition of regional sanctions which were not discussed at the summit. These could have piled more pressure on Mugabe and hurt the already ailing economy of his country.

Critics charge southern African leaders of letting Mugabe off the hook, by failing to discipline him. The presidents, some say, may live to regret their leniency.

"It’s a farce, SADC is not serious about democracy in Zimbabwe. They’ll have themselves to blame if things go drastically wrong," said Brian Kagoro, the coordinator of the Zimbabwe Crisis Group (ZCG) which represents 250 civil rights’ organisations throughout the country.

Instead, they say, Mugabe got off lightly and went home with only a list of suggestions handed him by his fellow presidents.

But the regional leaders did take exception to the warning last week by the commander of the Zimbabwean Defence forces on the conduct and results of the presidential election, warning that the military would only support a winning candidate who was a vetean of the liberation struggle. A statement said: "The summit expressed serious concern on the statement made by the Zimbabwe army of the election and urged the government of Zimbabwe to ensure that, in accordance with the multiparty political dispensation prevalent in SADC, political statements are not made by the military, but by political leaders."

The volatile political situation in Zimbabwe topped the agenda at the SADC summit in Blantyre. Mugabe and thirteen regional counterparts gathered behind closed doors for eight hours, to talk about Zimbabwe and the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. The Zimbabwean discussion appeared to dominate the one-day summit.

A final communique indicated some candid conversation between the SADC leaders and Mugabe. A reduction in the often violent political tension, that has become a feature of life in parts of Zimbabwe, was one of a number of recommendations for Mugabe that came out of the day-long meeting.

The regional leadership hopes to see the authorities in Harare guarantee the freedom of speech and association for both the opposition and the media; ll cases of political violence should be investigated; local election monitors and international observers should be granted accreditation. Journalists, domestic and foreign, should be allowed to report on the March 9/10 election in Zimbabwe.

That is the wish list.

But there are no guarantees President Mugabe will comply, although he told the meeting that he too wanted a transparent poll. The opposition in Zimbabwe and other Mugabe critics say this is impossible.

Returning home to Botswana, after the Blantyre summit, President Festus Mogae told reporters there was little SADC could do if the Zimbabwean leader did not honour his pledge to allow free and fair elections. "He (Mugabe) is an honourable man and we took his word for it. There is not much we can do. If he reneges, we will tell him we are not happy. But then he may tell us to go to hell," said the president of Botswana.

Mogae reminded journalists that his northeastern neighbour, Mugabe, was "the president of a very powerful and militarily more superior state. We have no ability nor inclination to dictate to him what to do. We cannot go to Zimbabwe and tell him and his cabinet what to do. He is a leader of a sovereign state" Mogae said Botswana would maintain good relations with Zimbabwe "because there is not much else we can do."

But the Zimbabwean opposition has accused Mugabe of hoodwinking his regional colleagues with promises in the run-up to the presidential poll, while he cracks the whip at home, rushing through draconian and restrictive legislation to secure his re-election, rein in the opposition and muzzle the media.

On Tuesday, the Zimbabwean government delayed a controversial media law debate in parliament, after running into trouble with a new labour bill that is destined to allow the authorities to ban strikes and de-register trade unions. The parliamentary session on the amendment to the labour law was adjourned.

The new media legislation would oblige local journalists to sign up for a one-year licence from a government commission or face two years in jail. Other restrictions could ban foreign correspondents from Zimbabwe altogether. Many have already been denied accreditation to report on developments.

Police dispersed a group of journalists in the Zimbabwean capital late Monday. They had gathered to hold an all-night protest vigil outside parliament in opposition to the media bill.

Zimbabwe could be under the threat of possible 'smart’ sanctions (against Mugabe and his aides) by the European Union (EU) and the United States. The London Financial Times newspaper reported on Tuesday that London and Washington were preparing to identify millions of dollars allegedly deposited abroad by Mugabe. This, said the paper, was a prelude to possibly freezing bank accounts and refusing visas to the Zimbabwean leader and other senior government figures, to prevent them visiting the West.

Last Friday, the EU gave Mugabe until next week to deliver a written undertaking that he will allow international observers and news media into Zimbabwe for the presidential poll. No mention was made, at meetings between a Zimbabwean delegation and EU officials in Brussels last week, of what might happen if Harare missed the January 20 deadline.

Harare could also face exclusion from the Commonwealth if Britain, Canada and Australia press ahead with a motion for its suspension at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Brisbane, Australia in early March.

It was reported on Tuesday that America had sent its senior human rights official, assistant secretary of state Lorne Craner, to Zimbabwe to discuss the crisis with government representatives and other leaders.

In the past week, there has been a further outbreak of violence in Zimbabwe, with reports that government supporters have forced another 23 white landowners to vacate their farms.

For two years, the violent occupation of white-owned farms, and the harassment, assault and occasional murder of black farm workers, white farmers and opposition supporters, have blighted Zimbabwe and tarnished the country’s image.

Britain, the former colonial power, has been particularly critical of the farm seizures and what it sees as an increasingly repressive regime under Mugabe. The Zimbabwean leader has been in power for 22 years, since independence in 1980, after a bruising war against white minority rule in the then Rhodesia.

Mugabe has rejected the criticism, throwing it back at Britain which he blames for some of Zimbabwe’s problems and the current imbalance in land ownership. Mugabe has initiated a government land redistribution programme for landless black Zimbabweans. But his opponents say Mugabe’s land reforms are just another tool and smokescreen for him to appear to appease black people, while maintaining his stranglehold on power.

As he left the summit in Malawi, Monday, ahead of his fellow presidents, Mugabe confidently told reporters that Britain, and not Zimbabwe, had drawn fire during their deliberations.

Bakili Muluzi would not be drawn into the verbal battle between London and Harare, although the Malawian leader suggested that it would be positive for the opposing sides to meet.

"We would like to encourage, if anything, some dialogue between Britain and Zimbabwe, so that they can start speaking to one another," said Muluzi. "It’s difficult when you don’t have a dialogue between parties and when you don’t discuss issues. And one hopes that one day, you know, President Mugabe and Prime Minister Blair will sit down and talk over things and discuss".

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