Page last updated at 12:11 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 13:11 UK

AU treads softly on Zimbabwe

By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC News, Sharm el-Sheikh

This week's African Union summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh was dominated by the problems of Zimbabwe.

Ghana"s president John Agyekum Kufour is seen on TV screens during the closing session of the African Union summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Tuesday, July 1, 2008.
The summit stopped short of calling the election illegitimate.

Coming just three days after the country's highly controversial second-round vote, this was Robert Mugabe's first international appearance since being re-elected president.

In the old days of the Organisation of African Unity, the continental body could quite reasonably have been described as a dictators' club.

There were always one or two honourable exceptions - Senegal for instance, and Botswana.

Yet otherwise, between the military coup plotters and the presidents-for-life, the majority of those attending summits would have been in no position to criticise any of their colleagues for lack of democracy.

But things are changing.

New democracies

The old democracies - those honourable exceptions of the past - are still there, and they have now been joined by countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, which have emerged as democracies despite devastating civil wars.

Sierra Leoneans recently voted out the ruling party candidate, and Liberia's elections produced a run-off between a woman and a football star.

(Mr Mugabe) must have been persuasive, since the resolution which emerged at the end of the session was as favourable as he could have wished

This was far more representative of Africa's young population and powerful women than the middle-aged men who still fill the hall at African Union summits.

Even Nigeria, where elections have often been far from perfect, enjoys lively political debate and rampant freedom of speech.

These were the countries which, from their own position of strength, led the criticism of Robert Mugabe in Sharm el-Sheikh.

In public, most of his colleagues simply ignored him, but behind closed doors he was obliged to sit and listen to trenchant criticism of the way he had been returned to power.

Possibly the strongest came from Zimbabwe's neighbour, Botswana.

Its vice-president, Mompati Merafhe, said Botswana did not believe the elections reflected the will of the Zimbabwean people or conferred legitimacy on President Mugabe's government

Representatives of the present Zimbabwean government should be excluded from African Union meetings, he argued.

No sanctions

Delegates who attended the closed debate said that Mr Mugabe was given the chance to respond to the criticisms, which he did at considerable length.

He must have been persuasive, since the resolution which emerged at the end of the session was as favourable as he could have wished.

It expressed concern about the criticism by observer groups of the conduct of the elections, but did not pronounce them illegitimate.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe at AU summit
Some African leaders did criticise Mr Mugabe

It made no mention of any sanctions against Mr Mugabe's government, only encouraging the parties to honour their commitment to participate in dialogue, and supporting the call for a government of national unity.

It also warmly endorsed the role of intermediary held by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who the more hawkish delegates considered either ineffectual, or far too close to Mr Mugabe.

The African Union proceeds by consensus, not majority vote, and there was clearly no consensus for any kind of sanctions.

Even so, it was a weak resolution.

It was also one whose proposals depend utterly on the goodwill of the contending parties. And not everyone felt they could rely on that.

The Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, said she thought it was the view of many in the room that President Mugabe's government would have what she called "insurmountable difficulties" in leading efforts to put into effect the solutions proposed in the resolution.

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