The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Country Rejects Conditional Invitation to Summit

Harare — ZIMBABWE has declined an invitation to the 24th France-Africa Summit that starts in Cannes, France, today because of certain conditions tied to it.

In a statement yesterday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Zimbabwe had initially not been invited and had rejected attempts to extend a conditional invitation.

"The Ministry wishes to state that Zimbabwe was not invited to the Summit. However, enquiries were made as to whether the Government of Zimbabwe would accept an invitation with certain conditions attached to it. The Government of Zimbabwe indicated that it would not accept such an invitation," Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ms Charity Nzenza said.

The Herald understands that the French government dispatched former Mozambican President Mr Joaquim Chissano to Harare towards the end of to last year with Zimbabwe's invitation and to inform President Mugabe of the conditions attached to the invitation.

Diplomatic sources said the invitation was pleading with President Mugabe to decline to attend and delegate either one of the Vice Presidents or the Foreign Minister.

"It was a decline-and-delegate plea coming through Chissano who, by the way, knew the Zimbabwean Government would not accept it," said a source.

Mr Chissano met President Mugabe, who told him that Zimbabwe reserved the right to determine its participation and representation at any given forum.

Mr Chissano is said to have indicated that he was only an emissary, which Zimbabwe understood.

The sources said the French "were very anxious" about the issue just before last month's African Union Summit held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and tasked their ambassador to this country, Mr Michel Raimbaud, to check whether Zimbabwe had changed its position and was ready to send a Vice President or Foreign Minister to the summit.

"Again, Zimbabwe communicated very firmly that it upholds its own sovereignty and considered this matter bilateral in which case the British position did not matter," said a source.

The sources said the Zimbabwean delegation to the AU Summit briefed Sadc Foreign Ministers and the AU Executive Council -- which is made up of Foreign Ministers -- on its position.

According to the sources, the AU Executive Council considered the matter as "too hot" and referred it to the summit (AU leaders).

The summit expressed surprise at the French stance.

However, the leaders took a decision that the France-Africa Summit was a bilateral matter and each country would decide whether or nor to participate, the sources said.

They said the leaders in taking that decision emphasised that the France-Africa Summit was different from the European Union-Africa Summit, which is inter-regional and to which Africa is invited as a bloc.

Portugal is hosting the forthcoming EU-Africa Summit and has indicated it would invite all African countries, including Zimbabwe.

Following debate at the Addis Ababa summit, a decision was taken that since the matter was bilateral, the AU would, in its resolutions of the summit, hail France for its good relations with Africa.

But, according to the sources, the decision was reversed although AU Commission officials went on to post a communique with the resolution on France on their website.

France has tourism interests in Zimbabwe through the Rainbow Tourism Group, which has a partnership with Accor, and conservancies in the Gonarezhou National Park.

"There is no way France can hide behind Britain, let alone the EU. The France-Africa Summit is not a multilateral affair -- it is a bilateral affair. Does France really want to jeopardise its bilateral relations with Zimbabwe for the sake of an outgoing pixyish British Prime Minister (Tony Blair)?" observed one political analyst.

Sources said France had sought a compromise which would accommodate Harare and London, but Zimbabwe refused to be dictated to.

France-Africa summits began in 1973 for the purpose of bringing France and its former colonies to the table every two years to discuss issues of mutual interest, with the hosting alternating between France and the ex-colonies.

The summits were opened to non-French speaking countries in 1996 and Zimbabwe attended the last two summits in 2003 and 2005 out of courtesy.

The 24th summit, which comes a week ahead of the European Union Council of Ministers meeting in Brussels to review the illegal sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe, has aroused mixed feelings.

There is a school of thought that says it is not proper for African leaders to troop to Europe at the behest of one head of state like little children as it revokes memories of the colonial view that Africans are perpetual minors.

Yet others believe in strengthening synergies between former imperial powers and erstwhile colonies.

Other analysts say it appears France, which enjoys cordial relations with Zimbabwe, and which has, on numerous occasions, resisted British machinations against Harare, buckled to placate right-leaning voters in the run-up to the April elections in which President Jacques Chirac's Rally for the Republic party faces a stiff challenge from several resurgent opposition parties.

In 2003, France went ahead and invited President Mugabe despite British pressure not to do so.

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