Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe received the loudest cheers Thursday at the start of a southern African summit where his country’s economic and political turmoil top the agenda.
Many in the West blame Mugabe’s policies for the severe inflation and acute shortages that have crippled his country, once a regional breadbasket. But the dignitaries’ reaction as Mugabe was introduced appeared to reflect the opinion that the longtime ruler has been unfairly targeted—or at least a hesitation to criticize a fellow leader many revere as an anti-colonialist hero.
As the summit opened, Zambian President Mwanawasa, who is taking over the rotating chairmanship of the 14-member Southern African Development Community, praised elder statesmen who helped liberate countries in the region from colonial rule.
Mwanawasa also urged Zimbabweans to “maintain peace and stability at all costs, because the opposite will just push your beautiful country even further backwards.”
While Mugabe’s neighbors have long been reluctant to openly criticize one of their own, Mwanawasa once likened Zimbabwe to a “sinking Titanic.” However, ahead of the summit, Zambia appeared to be toeing a more cautious line, despite Western appeals to regional nations to do more.
Zimbabwe is in its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1980. Official inflation is given as 4,500 percent, the highest in the world, but independent estimates put it closer to 9,000 percent.
A government order slashing prices of all goods and services by about half in June has led to acute shortages of basic commodities. The economic crisis is largely blamed on the seizures of white-owned commercial farms that began in 2000, disrupting the agriculture-based economy.
Hordes of shoppers desperate to buy sugar amid severe shortages stampeded at a shopping complex in Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, killing a 15-year-old boy and a security guard, state media reported Thursday.
Government opponents say they have been subjected to police beatings and raids, and the U.S. and European Union have slapped asset freezes and a travel ban on Mugabe and his top associates.