Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and President Jacob Zuma. File photo: Siphiwe Sibeko

Africa must move on and quit being manipulated by him – that includes Zuma, writes Peter Fabricius.

Just as the official themes of African Union summits are invariably overshadowed by the continental conflict – or conflicts – de jour, so the agendas of Africa-EU summits are now always upstaged by controversy over the invitation list.

And Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is mostly at the centre of the row.

The second summit between the two continents in Lisbon was postponed for four years because he was under EU travel sanctions, but African leaders refused to attend if he wasn’t there.

Eventually, the EU waived its ban to allow him to attend and so the Lisbon summit went ahead in 2007 instead of 2003.

The third summit, in 2010, was held in Tripoli, so the Mugabe issue didn’t arise.

But it has reared its ugly head again before the fourth summit, which is to be held in Brussels tomorrow and Thursday.

Mugabe is still under a EU travel ban, and so the EU didn’t want him to attend. But after the AU objected, the EU relented and he was invited.

But his wife, Grace, was denied a visa because she, with her husband, remain the last Zimbabweans under travel sanctions and the EU didn’t feel it could bend its rules just for a spouse.

So now Robert Mugabe has pulled out of the summit and his government has called on all African leaders to do the same.

Sadly, President Jacob Zuma seems to have taken the bait, and he pulled out on Sunday, muttering complaints, as he has before, about Africans being treated as colonial “subjects”.

One hopes other African governments will not also be manipulated, for it seems Zimbabwe has been trying to present a wider issue as though it is all about the Mugabes.

Last week the AU ambassadors in Addis Ababa recommended to their leaders that the summit be postponed while they consider the implications of the restrictions which the EU was placing on which Africans might attend.

The EU apparently insisted that it could only invite states recognised by the UN and the EU. This basically referred to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – which the AU recognises as a state, but which the EU and UN regard as part of Morocco – more than it was about Grace Mugabe.

The EU has instead invited Morocco, which is not a member of the AU, having walked out in the 1980s when what was then the OAU recognised Sahrawi. But that is no longer an issue, because it was sorted out before the first EU-Africa summit.

The EU has also invited Egypt, which has been suspended from the AU because of the unconstitutional ousting of Mohammed Mursi last year. And Brussels has not invited Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir because he is a fugitive from the International Criminal Court.

South Africa was certainly irritated by the EU prescribing which African leaders should or should not attend the summit.

But it did not seem it was irritated enough for Zuma to pull out of the summit. For the EU, though probably rather clumsily, was really just making explicit what had already been implicit. For example, Bashir would never set foot in Brussels anyway, for fear of immediate arrest.

Significantly, perhaps, it was the Zimbabwean ambassador to the AU who chaired the meeting which recommended a postponement of the summit. And maybe the EU’s undue interference was a convenient excuse for Zuma, who has a whole lot on his plate at home, not least the public protector’s report on Nkandla.

The EU still believes most other African leaders will ignore the call and so the summit will go ahead and be a great success.

However, the issue has undoubtedly introduced an element of doubt into proceedings and so Brussels will probably have to wait rather anxiously until tomorrow to see who actually pitches up.

It would be very sad if Mugabe were to spoil the party again.

He would like nothing better than to do so to prove his own importance.

It’s really high time Africa bypassed him and moved on.

* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.

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