African leaders greet Mugabe with hugs

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was greeted with hugs at an African summit today, a sign that African leaders won’t shun him despite Western demands they take a tough stance over his re-election in a tainted vote.

But behind the scenes, some leaders were pushing for Mugabe to share power with his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, who dropped out of a weekend run off vote after allegedly state-sponsored killings and beatings of his supporters.

While many African countries – including regional powerhouse South Africa - have been unwilling to condemn Mugabe, criticism by the US and Europe has only mounted.

Italy today recalled its ambassador to Zimbabwe for consultations in protest at Mugabe’s regime.

France said it considers Mugabe’s government “illegitimate”.

In Nairobi, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Zimbabwe should be suspended from the African Union.

“They should suspend him and send peace forces to Zimbabwe to ensure free and fair elections,” Odinga said in Nairobi.

Senegal’s foreign minister, Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, complained of the hesitancy to openly pressure Mugabe.

He noted that some Africans argue the West should “leave us alone and we be left to decide our own destiny” – but then when the crisis occurs, “we don’t want to talk about it. That doesn’t make any sense.”

But the long-time Zimbabwe ruler basked in the opportunity at the opening of the African Union summit to show regional recognition of his victory, a day after he was sworn in as president for a sixth term following Friday’s run off, in which he was the sole candidate.

He entered the conference hall in Sharm El-Sheikh alongside his host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in a symbolic gesture of his status.

In public sessions, there was little overt warmth for Mugabe, but while mingling with leaders before the opening session, he hugged several heads of states and other diplomats, said one African delegate who was present.

“He was hugging everyone, pretty much everyone he could get close to,” said the delegate.

During public speeches, most AU leaders spoke of the “challenges” in Zimbabwe. But they never said anything harsh about Mugabe and focused on other issues facing Africa.

A draft resolution written by AU foreign ministers due to be approved by leaders at the two-day summit also didn’t criticise the run off or Mugabe - instead calling for dialogue.

But US secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, said she believed that, in private, leaders at the summit would “have very, very strong words for him”.

“I would suggest that one not take from the soft words in an open plenary as a reflection of the deep concern of leaders here of the situation in Zimbabwe,” she told reporters.

At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino also suggested behind-the-scenes pressure, saying Mugabe’s actions have “cast a negative light on some really good, democratic leaders in Africa.”

“There are a lot of them who are working very hard to institute democratic reforms in their own way,” she said.

Key African leaders have long had close ties to Mugabe, renowned as a campaigner against white rule and colonialism. They are also reluctant to be seen as backing the West – and former colonial rulers – against a fellow African, and many can’t claim democratic governments in their own countries.

Mubarak has ruled Egypt for 27 years – one year less than Mugabe – and has come under international criticism for unfair elections. Other African rulers have been in place even longer, such as Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang since 1979 and Gabon’s Omar Bongo since 1967.

The bloc of openly critical nations at the summit suffered a blow when one of its most vocal members, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, was rushed to Sharm El-Sheikh’s hospital yesterday. His vice president, Rupiah Banda, said today that 59-year-old Mwanawasa suffered a stroke and was in stable condition.

The African Union’s own observers said today that the Zimbabwe run off fell short of the continental body’s standards, citing violence and noting that the opposition was denied equal access to the media during the campaign. Residents said they were forced to vote by threats of violence or arson from Mugabe supporters.

Tsvangirai has been holed up at the Dutch Embassy in Harare since announcing his withdrawal from the race on June 22.

The United States is calling for additional travel and financial sanctions against Mugabe supporters and wants the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo against the country.

African diplomats have pointed at Kenya’s power-sharing agreement, which ended bloodshed there after flawed elections earlier this year, as a possible model for Zimbabwe.

But unlike Kenya, which brought together two rivals who had been allies and are of the same generation, there’s little common ground between Mugabe and Tsvangirai.

One is 84-year-old and a veteran of Africa’s anti-colonial struggles and the other a 56-year-old former trade union leader.

If a coalition agreement is struck, it will be because moderates within Mugabe’s party have somehow persuaded him and other hard-liners that it’s the only way to bring the country out of international isolation.

Tsvangirai has said he is open to sharing power with moderate ruling party members. But it wants the African Union to take over mediation from South African President Thabo Mbeki. Tsvangirai says Mbeki’s refusal to publicly criticise Mugabe betrays bias in Mugabe’s favour.

While some African leaders have called for a change from Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy,” it is hard to imagine the African Union showing Mbeki disrespect by stripping him or the southern African bloc of the mediation role.

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