PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe’s c
omfort zone at African summits seems to be rapidly shrinking as the continent’s leaders begin to speak out against prolonged dictatorships and human rights abuses.
Mugabe’s life at last week’s crucial African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was made difficult by the AU Commission on Human and People’s Rights report which condemned repression and human rights in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean delegation to the summit seized the limelight — for all the wrong reasons — after the continental body’s executive council broke with tradition and “noted” the stinging report, leaving Harare authorities exposed to a barrage of criticism at home and abroad.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said the report was a clear “demonstration of the independence and fearlessness on the part of the commission”.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the commission came to a correct conclusion on the merits of the case when it made the finding that Zimbabwe had violated human rights,” the group said. “It is difficult for any informed and genuine person to find fault with the commission’s findings.”
The newly formed Zimbabwe Journalists for Human Rights said the report showed African leaders were no longer locked in a revolutionary solidarity mindset and handcuffed to the past.
“Just like its predecessor, the OAU, which freed Africa from the bondage of colonialism, the AU also faces a more or less similar challenge of freeing its people from current tyrannical regimes holding sway across a vast swathe of the continent,” the journalists’ group said.
“AU leaders have shown that they are no longer programmed by history and are willing to tackle despots in their midst. This will certainly enhance their collective credibility and allay fears that the AU would eventually be turned into a club of dictators.”
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) initially welcomed the report but later expressed disappointment when AU leaders apparently let Zimbabwe off the hook.
Analysts say it is increasingly becoming clear Mugabe is now being haunted by the excesses of his repressive rule wherever he goes. Foreign minister Stan Mudenge had a nightmare as he struggled to defend the indefensible and ended up imposing a seven-day deadline on himself to formally respond to the report which he claimed — against clear evidence to the contrary — that Zimbabwe had not seen.
Delegates to the summit reportedly remarked that if it was true Mugabe and his delegation had not seen the report, they were the only ones.
This made Harare authorities appear as if they were ill-informed about issues relating to their own country. In a bid to ward off pressure, Mudenge agreed to respond to the report in seven days.
His ministry was last Friday reported to be racing against time to beat the deadline which was due the following day. Foreign Affairs spokesperson Pavelyn Musaka confirmed government was working on a response to the report in line with its commitment to the AU executive council on July 3.
With his “African brothers” no longer willing to whitewash his appalling governance record, analysts say Mugabe could soon be “smoked out” from his solidarity cocoon.
Mugabe often seems to enjoy summits where populist grandstanding takes precedence over issues of substance. But diplomatic observers say this could be coming to an end. Mugabe is likely be made to feel uncomfortable at next month’s Southern African Development Community (Sadc) summit in Mauritius which will discuss the conduct of elections in the region.
Sadc leaders have of late been circulating the regional body’s proposed Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections which will be endorsed in Port Louis in August.
Sources have said Zanu PF was forced into adopting the recent electoral reforms by sustained regional and domestic pressure. The next Sadc summit is widely expected to tackle the conduct of elections in the region, something that could bring Zimbabwe into sharp focus again.
Zimbabwe has in recent years become a global flashpoint due to disputed elections and concomitant political instability, which has been worsened by the current economic crisis.
In what was widely seen as an attempt to ratchet up pressure on entrenched authoritarian leaders, United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan during the opening of the summit last week slammed dictators clinging onto power.
“Let us pledge that the days of indefinite one-man or one-party governments are behind us,” Annan said to applause. “There is no greater wisdom and no clearer mark of statesmanship than knowing when to pass the torch to a new generation.”
Annan’s audience included Mugabe — Africa’s oldest president — and other continental strongmen such as President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo and Gabon’s Omar Bongo.
He said African leaders must stop resisting democracy and embrace regular free and fair elections, a credible opposition whose role was respected, an independent judiciary that upholds the rule of law, a free and independent press, effective civilian control over the military and a vibrant civil society. Mugabe has in the past claimed such issues are “peripheral and extraneous”.
The report, which sent ministers and the state media scrambling to find excuses, condemned “blatant human rights abuses, a flurry of repressive legislation, political violence. . . torture . . . and arbitrary arrests of journalists . . . opposition MPs and human rights lawyers”.
Information minister Jonathan Moyo claimed the MDC, which described the report as a “breath of fresh air”, had “smuggled” the issue onto the agenda at the behest of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
He also attacked former Law Society of Zimbabwe president Sternford Moyo whom he accused of “unashamedly” using his position to distort information on Zimbabwe. Although the veteran lawyer declined to become embroiled in a public brawl with Moyo, he said the minister’s claims were misleading.
“The false and defamatory attack on me by the Minister of State for Information and Publicity is so outrageous as to be unworthy of any substantive response,” he said.
Current Law Society of Zimbabwe president Joseph James also dismissed the minister’s attacks against his predecessor. He suggested the indignant official reaction was a calculated distraction designed to submerge issues under a sludge of rhetoric.
“Since 2002, the situation has not improved, and in fact, has deteriorated. Court orders continue to be defied by the executive; arbitrary arrests of the opposition continue; police appear partisan; and it is virtually impossible for persons who express views not in line with those of government to hold demonstrations although government supporters have no problems in doing so,” James said.
“This lack of respect of the law has now permeated all levels of society . . . lawyers are denied access to their clients routinely by police; lawyers are threatened with arrest during the course of their duties; and there have been cases of magistrates being threatened with assault.”