A storm is slowly brewing ahead of the European Union and Africa Union summit, which is to be held in Lisbon, Portugal, in December. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s expected attendance at the summit is causing a rift between some African and European leaders, threatening to derail an important gathering between two continents that have strong historical ties.
If anything, Africans stand to lose more from this diplomatic spat if no immediate solution to the impasses is found. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently announced that he would not attend the summit if Mugabe attends. In an open editorial in the United Kingdom’s Independent, Brown stated that Mugabe’s presence at the summit would divert attention from important matters.
Mugabe currently faces a travel ban to any European country because of alleged human rights abuses. "President Mugabe’s attendance would mean lifting the EU visa ban that we have collectively imposed," Brown said in the editorial. "I believe that President Mugabe’s presence would undermine the summit, diverting attention from the important issues that need to be resolved. In those circumstances, my attendance would not be appropriate." Portugal, which will host the summit, has said that it will invite Zimbabwe despite boycott threats by Britain and some other EU members. According to Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, "every country" in the EU and the AU will be present at the December summit, setting the stage for a showdown between EU and AU heads of states.
Brown’s statements have drawn criticism from many African leaders and institutions. Ghana, the current AU chair, is intent on seeing all heads of African states present at the EU-AU summit in December. "It would not be fair not to invite a member of the African Union. I believe we are coming with all members of the African Union, the heads of state of the African Union, so definitely the invitation will be issued," remarked Ghana’s Foreign Minister Akwasi Osei Adjei.
According to analysts the EU-AU summit has been in limbo for the last seven years because of the refusal of Britain and other EU countries to attend if the Zimbabwean leader was invited. Throughout that time, a diplomatic spat has been fought between European and African leaders over Mugabe’s presence at the summit. Many of the African leaders have already threatened to boycott the December summit if Mugabe is not invited.
"I will not go to Lisbon if Mugabe is not allowed. I don’t know how many of us will be prepared to go to Portugal without Mugabe," said Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, current chair of the 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC). As a result of Gordon’s threat to boycott the summit because of Mugabe, both the AU and SADC have gone on the defensive and have too threatened to abandon the summit if Mugabe is excluded.
It is apparent from such school boyish threats that none of the leaders concerned is committed to making the summit meaningful for their people, and especially for the people of Zimbabwe. Granted, according to Brown, Mugabe has caused innumerable suffering for his people.
"The facts are stark: four million people have fled the country; 80 percent of the population is unemployed; four million will be on food aid by the end of the year; and average life expectancy has fallen to just 37," states Brown in the editorial. "There is no easy solution to end this suffering. But I am determined that Britain continues to do everything it can to help the Zimbabwean people," adds Brown.
If this is the case, then why allow Mugabe’s presence to derail a summit that can potentially bring benefits to millions of people across the continent of Africa. An alternative for Brown would be just to avoid Mugabe at the summit, rather than prolong a spat that only serves to authenticate the neo-imperialistic tendencies of Western countries that Mugabe has complained of for so long.
There’s much more that can be achieved through engagement at the summit rather than the long-overdue isolation of Mugabe — something that is in the long-term interests of the people of Zimbabwe, which Brown claims to be concerned about.