By John Hooper Rome
Britain expressed outrage yesterday after Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe took advantage of a United Nations ceremony in Rome to compare Tony Blair to Italy’s wartime dictator, Benito Mussolini. Departi
ng from his prepared text at the 60th anniversary celebrations of the UN’s biggest agency, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Zimbabwean leader described the prime minister and the US president, George Bush, as “international terrorists”.
He also denounced their invasion of Iraq, saying they were “the two unholy men of our millennium who, in the same way as Hitler and Mussolini formed (an) unholy alliance, formed an alliance to attack an innocent country”.
Matthew Wyatt, Britain’s representative at the FAO, said Mugabe’s presence at a conference on food and hunger was a “sick irony”. He told the Guardian: “It is extremely unfortunate that Mugabe was at this occasion. He has created hunger and poverty in his own country.”
Aid groups have estimated that five million of Zimbabwe’s 12 million people may need food aid this year. Mugabe’s policies, including the forcible redistribution of white-owned farms, have been widely criticised for plunging the country into its deepest economic crisis since independence. Mugabe said that his land reforms had been needed to redress “gross imbalances” left by colonialism.
Wyatt said that he and other delegates had gone to the anniversary celebrations “to remind ourselves that there are, by the FAO’s estimate, 852 million hungry people, and that we face a huge challenge meeting the millennium development goals. Having somebody like Mugabe present was entirely inappropriate. It would have been better for all of us – the FAO included – if he had not come.”
His outrage was echoed by that of his US counterpart, Tony Hall, who described the Zimbabwean president as someone who “chews up his own people and spits them out”. That was clearly not the view of some of the other delegates who repeatedly applauded Mugabe’s fiery anti-western diatribe.
Flanked by bodyguards, the Zimbabwean leader declared: “The voice of Mr Bush and the voice of Mr Blair can’t decide who shall rule in Zimbabwe, who shall rule in Africa, who shall rule in Asia, who shall rule in Venezuela, who shall rule in Iran, who shall rule in Iraq.”
His reference to Venezuela was well received by Hugo Chávez, who told Italy’s Ansa news agency: “I pay tribute to Mugabe.” The Venezuelan president added: “The president of Zimbabwe is made out to be a villain – because he takes land from those who don’t need it to give it to those who need it to live.”
British and US officials acknowledged that customarily the FAO invites the heads of state of all its member nations to such events. But yesterday’s rumpus is bound to fuel growing disquiet in London and Washington over the course being taken by the agency under the leadership of its Senegalese director general, Jacques Diouf, who has been in place since 1994; next month he will stand unopposed for a third term of office.
President Mugabe yesterday thanked the director general for having invited him despite objections made by the US.
American officials said last month that they were preparing to place travel restrictions on Mugabe, his government and family. The ban is expected to be similar to one imposed by the EU following claims that the Zimbabwean government was involved in vote-rigging in the 2000 and 2002 elections. Under an agreement with the FAO, Italy does not impose any restrictions on delegates visiting the agency.
However, the head of the Italian parliament’s agriculture committee, Sergio Agoni, said it was “scandalous that Robert Mugabe should be coming to speak about food at a time when his compatriots are dying in the streets for lack of foodstuffs and human rights”.
Mugabe also enjoys immunity for visits to the Vatican; earlier this year, he exploited to the full his attendance at the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Placed close to the Prince of Wales, he leaned over and shook the prince’s hand during the service. The prince’s household said afterwards that he had been taken by surprise. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005