A summit of southern African leaders got underway on Saturday in Zambia in a bid to find a solution to Zimbabwe's post-election stalemate, with South African president Thabo Mbeki saying the stalemate is not a crisis. (Report: O. Fairclough)
An emergency summit of southern African leaders on Zimbabwe's post-election crisis opened Saturday with a plea from its chairman not to turn a blind eye, but President Robert Mugabe stayed away.
With no result declared two weeks after Zimbabwe's presidential election, Zambia's Levy Mwanawasa told leaders of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) that doing nothing was not an option.
"SADC cannot stand by and do nothing when one of its members is experiencing political and economic pain. It would be wrong to turn a blind eye," the Zambian president said in his opening address in Lusaka.
Before retreating behind closed doors for talks with heads of state including Thabo Mbeki from regional power South Africa, Mwanawasa insisted the summit was "not intended to put President Mugabe in the dock."
Mugabe -- accused by the opposition of holding back the result of the March 29 election and leading a campaign of intimidation to hold on to power -- turned down an invitation to attend but sent a delegation of four ministers.
However, Zimbabwe's opposition leader and self-proclaimed presidential victor Morgan Tsvangirai was seated in the front row for Mwanawasa's opening remarks and broke into a smile amid a gaggle of photographers.
If Tsvangirai had hopes that leaders might issue a hard-hitting statement and even put pressure on Mugabe to stand down, they were dealt a blow when President Mbeki stopped over in Harare en route to the Zambian capital.
After his first face-to-face talks with Mugabe since the elections, Mbeki seemingly ignored pleas for outside pressure to be levied upon the veteran Zimbabwean strongman and suggested things be allowed to run their course.
"There is no crisis in Zimbabwe," he told journalists. "The body authorised to release the results is the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, let's wait for them to announce the results."
Mbeki, who was the chief mediator between Zimbabwe's governing ZANU-PF party and Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change in the build-up to the election, has since come under fire for refusing to condemn the delayed result.
Mugabe made no mention of the election, but denied he was snubbing the summit, saying, "We are very good friends and very good brothers. Sometimes you attend, sometimes you have other things holding you back."
The head of Mugabe's delegation in Lusaka, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, told AFP before the summit started that the meeting was unnecessary.
"There is no need to regionalise the Zimbabwean crisis," Chinamasa said, adding angrily that asking an opposition leader such as Tsvangirai to attend a heads of state summit was "unheard of".
Tsvangirai did not join the SADC leaders for the closed-door meetings. A final statement was expected at the end of their deliberations, but discussions were continuing late Saturday after several hours.
Southern African leaders have been heavily criticised over their traditional reluctance to speak out against Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years and is the oldest leader in the region.
Nevertheless many in SADC are fed up with the economic mess on their doorstep with inflation in Zimbabwe now well into six figures, unemployment at over 80 percent and average life expectancy down to 36 years of age.
Some three million Zimbabweans have left their homeland to find work or food, most ending up in its giant neighbour South Africa.
Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) says neither the 84-year-old incumbent nor Tsvangirai won a clear victory in the election and insists the battle must go to a second round.
But the opposition has ruled out Tsvangirai's participation as it says a second ballot would be undemocratic due to Mugabe's intimidatory tactics.
"The military has basically taken over," MDC number two Tendai Biti, accompanying Tsvangirai in Lusaka, told journalists.
"There is a constitutional coup d'etat that has taken place there and that's why this meeting is very critical," he said, calling on SADC to "speak out clearly and decisively against his dictatorship and the status quo."
The MDC has called for a general strike to be launched from Tuesday, the day after a court is due to rule on its bid to force the publication of the election result.
Mugabe's ZANU-PF lost parliament to the opposition for the first time in the legislative elections, also on March 29, but the ruling party is contesting enough seats to win back control.
Date created : 2008-04-12