TOPICS : Zimbabwe: Prospects of power-sharing

Ramped up pressure from the West, especially the US and Britain, is having a perverse effect on African leaders gathered in Egypt. The harder the West leans, the more they circle the wagons around Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Mugabe feels so comfortable among peers at the African Union summit at Sharm El-Sheikh that his spokesman Monday told critics to “go hang”, and his bodyguards shoved a reporter asking pesky questions to the 84-year-old leader.

Thus far most African heads of state attending the meeting have remained mum, at least in public, about Mugabe’s re-election, which Washington calls a “sham” and the AU’s own election monitors have criticised sharply.“The vote fell short of the African Union’s standards of democratic elections,” the monitors announced Monday in Harare, suggesting that “constructive dialogue” between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is the best way forward.

A few heads of state, including Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, have spoken out in favour of a negotiated settlement between Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), but thus far neither the AU nor the Southern African Development Community has taken a formal stand on the recent election.

South Africa, which under the leadership of President Thabo Mbeki has long pursued the failed strategy of “quiet diplomacy”, has now adopted a public stance calling for dialogue. South Africa has been hesitant to criticise Mugabe due to the help received by the ruling African National Congress while pursuing its own goals of self-determination over many years. Elsewhere in Africa respect for Mugabe’s earlier accomplishments, combined with widely shared distaste and anger over colonial rule, have helped to make leaders wary of criticising him. Thus last Friday’s poll was transformed from a run-off into a walkover by Mugabe.

Although calls for a power-sharing arrangement are growing, the key question is how a unity government would take shape. But neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai appear willing to take the back-seat in a unity government. Mugabe, meanwhile, cites Friday’s election as his mandate to continue in power - despite numerous reports on Zimbabwean voters being forced by intimidation and violence to go to the polls. Nonetheless, South Africa’s Business Day reported today that Mbeki’s envoys are hard at work in Harare, trying to broker a power-sharing agreement acceptable to the two parties. Washington is also calling for mediation and negotiation, but has other plans as well.

The US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalizad warned that the US will continue pressing for multilateral sanctions against Zimbabwe in the UN, but may also impose stricter unilateral sanctions. According to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, such sanctions could include a travel ban on government officials, economic sanctions aimed at depriving the regime of external funds, and possibly an arms embargo. — IPS