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AU Summit Communiqué to Deal Gently with Zimbabwe's Mugabe

Africa's leaders are struggling to find a common response to Zimbabwe's political turmoil, as they wrap up a two-day summit in Egypt. From the summit site in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports the final communiqué will avoid condemning the conduct of the election, but will stop short of recognizing the result.

Robert Mugabe's presence has overshadowed all other events and issues at this semi-annual gathering of African heads of state. He has received favorable attention from many of his fellow leaders, some of whom have held power longer than Mr. Mugabe's 28 years.

The continent's longest serving head of state, Gabon's Omar Bongo, hailed Mr. Mugabe as a hero as he arrived for the start of this grand two-day affair at the gleaming seaside convention center.

Reporters, photographers and diplomats loiter in the hallways wherever Mr. Mugabe goes, hoping to catch a word or snap a photo.

Then, suddenly, there he is, flanked by bodyguards, only an arms length from a small gaggle of reporters, waiting, as if to say, Ask me something?

Q: "Mr. Mugabe, how was your reception today? How was your reception, sir?"
A: "African, that is all."
Q: "How were you treated today?"

Then pandemonium breaks out, as reporters and photographers close in, and Mr. Mugabe's bodyguards shove back.

This was supposed to be a summit about the challenges of clean water and sanitation on the African continent, but closed-door summit sessions, backroom discussions and hallway gossip have all focused mainly on how the organization should respond to Mr. Mugabe's challenge to democracy.

African diplomatic sources say a few countries, led by West African nations such as Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Ghana, are pushing a for final summit statement that contains strong language criticizing the conduct of Ziimbabwe's runoff election. But those voices are met with strong opposition from the many friends and admirers Mr. Mugabe has made in his long career, first as a leader of the movement to cast off white rule and, then, as a champion of land reform.

Thus, those charged with drafting a summit statement on Zimbabwe must walk a fine line, avoiding condemnation of Mr. Mugabe while at the same time also avoiding any language of congratulation or recognition of his inauguration. Veteran Algerian diplomat Ramtane Lamamra, who serves as AU Peace and Security Commissioner, says this is not the time or place to talk about sanctions or other criticisms.

"Sanctions are not the best tool that modern diplomacy has invented," said Lamamra. "The African Union is striving to help its member states to develop their democratic processes, to take care of the potential crises that might arise in the exercise of democratic practices. So I don't know why we should focus only on this issue, while I think the agenda of the day is really how to assist the Zimbabweans in coming together and working together for the best future for their country."

Lamamra rejects the notion that the continental body lacks the political will to address tough issues like Zimbabwe's political turmoil. He argues that the way forward lies in reconciliation between Zimbabwe's opposing factions.

"What I would say is the African Union is building itself," he said. "It is certainly not a perfect organization, and I don't know of one, we are trying to find ways and means of solving our problems. We are striving to be consistent, to be consistent with the principles we are upholding. Realities are there. We deal with realities and not with ideals. You journalists may be disappointed with the way we are handling some issues, but we believe that it is wise to do it the way we are doing it."

One senior West African diplomat who asked not to be identified said this summit is doomed to inaction on the one issue on everyone's minds. He says, in the end, the organization's hands are tied because, as he puts it, "Who among us can point the finger at Mugabe? We are all sinners."