Africa: Civil Society Discusses Darfur, Zimbabwe at Summit

Accra — African officials and members of civil society organizations across the continent have been debating the twin crises in Darfur, Sudan and Zimbabwe ahead of the African Union Summit in Accra, Ghana.

While the official theme of the conference is the so-called "Grand Debate on a United States of Africa," which would accelerate political and economic integration within the body's 52 member states, discussions of the ongoing violence in Darfur and the worsening political and economic situation in Zimbabwe are largely taking place outside of the official forum.

Last Wednesday hundreds of students, religious leaders and a handful of officials gathered for an evening of music, statements of solidarity and images of atrocities being committed in Darfur, Sudan.

Performances by local Ghanaian Afro-Roots musician Amandzeba and South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela called on Africans across the continent to speak out in support of the victims of Darfur. "We have to inform our people about what is really going on – to inspire a spirit of outrage, for Africans to say 'no more'," Masekela said. "It is pointless to form a union at a time when we are attacking each other. It is incumbent at this time not to stand by until a film is made called 'Hotel Darfur'."

In a separate event, Sudan's President, Omar El-Bashir, addressed members of the press via satellite from Khartoum, and took questions from journalists in Accra, Ghana, as well as Washington D.C., New York and nine other countries around the world.

El-Bashir said international coverage of the crisis in Darfur was oversimplifying the issue, which he said is largely driven by local conflicts over land and other resources.   The Sudanese president also said the U.S. was behind much of the false information regarding the Sudanese government's role in Darfur and that it was supplying Darfurian rebels with arms, in addition to slowing Sudan's development through sanctions.   "They [the Americans] want to make the same mistakes in Sudan as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan."

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, who attended the briefing in Accra, said the AU Summit was the proper forum for debate on Sudan.   "I wish that President Bashir would come to this conference and meet with his peers to grapple these issues," he said.

A similar public hearing on the current situation in Zimbabwe took place on Thursday. A number of speakers – including journalists, student leaders and human rights activists – offered personal accounts of unwarranted arrests, mistreatment and even torture by Zimbabwean authorities.

Promise Mkwananzi, president of the Zimbabwe National Students Union, described his detention and beating by Zimbabwean police and said he had relocated to South Africa to avoid action against himself and his family. Despite finding refuge in South Africa, Mkwananzi was critical of President Thabo Mbeki for advocating greater African unity without effectively addressing the Zimbabwe question.

"Pan-Africanism does not give a government the right to persecute its own people," Mkwananzi said, adding that the current situation in Zimbabwe has resulted in a massive outflow of both students and professors from the country's once-heralded universities.

Tabitha Khumalo, vice president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and a longtime Mugabe critic, also painted a bleak picture of the state of affairs in Zimbabwe, noting that the current lifespan for women there has dropped to 34 years of age. Khumalo said a united Africa must provide "room for civil society to move quickly to raise the alarm" on issues ranging from women's health to the United Nations Millennium Development goals, not just in Zimbabwe but across the continent. "When Zimbabwe sneezes," she said, "Africa will catch a cold."

A Zimbabwean official at the event was dismissive of the testimonials of torture and other forms of government oppression. "Some of these stories sound very touching, but there is lots of artistry going on," said Wilfred Mumhura, a consular minister based in Addis Ababa, who said the growing image of Zimbabwe as a "house on fire" was inaccurate. He said Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, is an "irresponsible group" funded by the U.S., Britain and other western powers that wants "to create chaos and instability" in Zimbabwe. It was, he added, incumbent on both the government and the opposition to behave responsibly and respectfully.

Mumhura pointed to the meeting's organizers, a consortium of civil society organizations that included the Open Society Institute for Southern Africa, the International Federation for Human Rights, CREDO-Africa and the Media Foundation for West Africa, as evidence of collaboration with western governments out to demonize the government of Robert Mugabe.

A number of Ghanaian students present for the discussion agreed with some of the sentiments expressed by the Zimbabwean minister. "Yes, we believe there are abuses taking place in Zimbabwe but we face much worse here in Ghana," said Collins Dakurah, a student leader from the University of Ghana. He said there was a false impression that a country like Ghana was good and a country like Zimbabwe bad. "The two sides should come together, first on the land issue, and then deal with human rights," he said, adding that media propaganda against Zimbabwe could be countered through Pan-African unity.

Others in attendance, including Masekela, were not enthusiastic about the African Union's ability to deal with both Darfur and Zimbabwe. "These are people who sit down and drink wine together, who share meals together," he said. "They are not going to confront each other."

While neither Sudan nor Zimbabwe are part of the official agenda, some African foreign ministers and other officials attending meetings of the AU Executive Council offered comments to reporters. Zambian foreign minister Mundia Sikatana said his country shares a natural border with Zimbabwe. "We can't forsake nor can we benefit by demonizing [Robert] Mugabe or Zimbabwe," he said. "We believe in talking to Zimbabwe, and understanding their problems, and showing them where we think they go wrong." Marginalizing the regime "will not work, " he added.

The U.S. ambassador to the African Union, Dr. Cindy Courville, a former professor who wrote her dissertation on Zimbabwe's liberation struggle, said the AU was making significant strides towards dealing effectively with Sudan and Zimbabwe.

"When you look at the AU and the stance they have taken, the AU now has a policy of non-indifference, that is, they cannot look the other way," she said in an interview. "The first concern in all of these situations," she said, "is to avoid a military situation."

Rev. Jackson agreed.   "The strength of the AU will be to unify the nation states of African but ultimately must have the moral authority to grapple with the difficult issues in Zimbabwe and Darfur," he said. "The human rights standards must be honored, and the UN and the AU should have access to Darfur and ultimately Zimbabwe. "

Robert Nolan is an editor at the American non-profit organization, the Foreign Policy Association. His forthcoming Headline Series book on the African Union will be published in early 2008. He writes for allAfrica by special arrangement.

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