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Africa's Leaders Split Over Response to Mugabe's Election

Africa's leaders are grappling with the question of how to treat Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe when he arrives to attend an African Union summit beginning Monday at the Egyptian resort Sharm el Sheik. From the summit site, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports Zimbabwe's political crisis has overshadowed other issues in the pre-summit negotiations.

Africa's top diplomats and politicians met in closed session for several hours Sunday, and into the early hours Monday, debating how to respond to Robert Mugabe's challenge to democracy on the continent. But as heads of state arrive for the opening of a two-day summit, word from behind those closed doors is that the 53 African Union members are sharply divided.

Mr. Mugabe was sworn in for a sixth term in office shortly before the meeting started, after winning a one-man election widely viewed as a farce. The question facing the African Union as it meets in this Red Sea resort is whether to accept him as Zimbabwe's legitimate leader.

In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, Tanzania's Foreign Minister Bernard Membe late Sunday refused to answer reporters' questions about how the African Union would react to the vote. When asked whether he would address Mr. Mugabe as president when he arrives at the summit hall, Membe cautioned journalists to stop dwelling on titles.

"We are in a serious business here," said Bernard Membe. "The question is the people of Zimbabwe, what do we do for the suffering people of Zimbabwe. It's not a matter of the titles of the people, and I would be surprised if somebody would waste your time on trying to look for a title. You can call me a terrorist, you can call me anybody, but as long as I address the issues of my home country, I don't care. So it would be none of this summit's business to choose titles for leaders."

Word from behind the closed doors of Sunday's meetings was that several West African nations are pushing for strong statement condemning the conduct of the runoff election, but that a number of other countries are resisting.

America's top diplomat on African affairs made clear that Mr. Mugabe is no longer considered as a legitimate head of state. Speaking on the summit sidelines, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazier noted that African observer groups, from the Pan African Parliament to the Southern African Development Community, were in broad agreement that the election failed to satisfy the standards of freedom and fairness.

"Just a quote from the SADC report that has just come out," said Jendayi Frazier. "They said, 'based on the above mentioned observations, the mission is of the view that the prevailing environment impinged on the credibility of the electoral process, the elections did not represent the will of the people of Zimbabwe.' That's a pretty definitive statement from the Southern African Development Community's observers, and so I think that clearly says what has been said, which is you can't have a free and fair election, and you can't have the outcome considered legitimate or credible based on the level of intimidation and violence going into that election."

There remains strong resistance among many of Mr. Mugable's African Union peers to any strong action against him. But diplomats say there appears to be a new willingness among African leaders to break with their long tradition of not criticizing another member of the club.

Some of those officials say they can trace the change to a summit eve comment made by Africa's elder statesman, Nelson Mandela . As he turned 90-years-old during the past week, Mandela spoke of a 'tragic failure of leadership in Zimbabwe'.

Diplomats here point out, however, that only 23 of Africa's 53 heads of state have been elected. Mr. Mugabe still has many supporters among the AU's leaders, and there are still tough meetings ahead before the continental body is ready to take a stand on this latest challenge to African democracy.