The African Union (AU) has threatened to withdraw from a planned trade and investment summit with the European Union (EU), if the Western bloc does not invite Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe, who turns 90 years old this month, was elected First Vice-Chair of the influential AU executive council during last week's General Assembly meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The appointment makes him eligible for the chairmanship of the AU in 2015.
The appointment also reportedly renders "futile" a decision by the EU not to invite him to a summit of the two blocs set for Belgium in April. The ZANU PF leader remains targeted under the EU's list of restrictive measures, which prevents him and a handful of other ZANU PF officials from European travel.
But Africa's leaders have now rallied behind Mugabe, whose position as President remains disputed by civil society groups and the opposition MDC parties in Zimbabwe.
According to the Zambian Foreign Affairs Minister, Wylbur Simuusa, the AU resolved to snub the EU summit if Mugabe is not invited.
"We must now speak with one voice and make sure we act in the interest of Africa. That is why for the EU-Africa summit coming up, where Zimbabwe has been singled out with restrictions for President Robert Mugabe from attending, the position that the AU has taken is that if Zimbabwe won't go, then Africa will not go and that has been agreed upon," Simuusa said.
Zimbabwe's Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi also confirmed the position taken by the AU on his return from Ethiopia on Saturday.
The EU has in recent months been steadily re-engaging with the ZANU PF regime, despite the widespread reports of vote rigging and other irregularities that marred the Zim elections last year. This re-engagement has included removing the majority of its targeted Zim restrictions, with only Mugabe, nine other people and one company still listed.
EU leaders will be meeting later this month to determine if the remaining measures should also be lifted, and there is speculation that this will be the ultimate decision from Europe.
UK based Zimbabwean activist Ephraim Tapa told SW Radio Africa that the EU has likely been engineering Mugabe's acceptance back into diplomatic circles, "because there is a fight for access to Zimbabwe's natural resources."
Belgium, Europe's diamond trade capital, successfully led the push for the lifting of measures that barred it from trading in Zimbabwe's controversial Chiadzwa diamonds. Tapa said similar "greedy" motives might have engineered Mugabe's promotion to a top leadership position at the AU.
"The AU position was expected since they endorsed Zimbabwe's elections without saying the process was fair, so now they are trying to normalise the abnormal. But the EU position goes against international principles of human rights, and it is all about diamonds," Tapa said.
Former Chegutu farmer turned activist Ben Freeth said the developments in Africa were a real concern for democracy and human rights across the continent. Freeth, who has led key legal battles against Mugabe, told SW Radio Africa that the AU's defense of Mugabe in this way is "preposterous."
"It is preposterous that a man who has committed genocide, who has destroyed the rule of law, destroyed his own country's economy, who has been the cause of a quarter of the population leaving the country because of what he has done, is elected by other African leaders to a top position," Free said.
He added: "Africa can't progress when its leaders are dictators. And to say a man is great and give him such power on the basis of what he has destroyed, is very concerning for Africa's future," Freeth said.
Meanwhile, the AU has also urged its members to unite to protect more of its fellows in preventing criminal proceedings at the International Criminal Court against sitting presidents. The AU said it was disappointed that a request to the UN Security Council to defer the trials of Kenya's leaders "has not yielded the positive result expected". The African Union also has sought the deferral of criminal proceedings against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged with genocide in Darfur.
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto face charges of crimes against humanity at the international court at The Hague for allegedly orchestrating post-election violence that killed more than 1,000 people following a disputed presidential election in late 2007. Both men deny the charges.