Shapi Shacinda and Michael Georgy
LUSAKA - Zimbabwe yesterday rejected the need for political reform at a summit of regional leaders meant to find ways to ease the country's political and economic crisis.
Leaders of the Southern African Development Community are meeting to consider the crisis in Zimbabwe, but prospects for progress looked slim after the Harare government rejected dialogue with the opposition and insisted on its democratic credentials.
"Political reform is not necessary in my country because we are a democracy like any other democracy in the world," Patrick Chinamasa, Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, said.
He blamed what he called "a history of brutal treatment" by Zimbabwe's former colonial master Britain for the crisis in his country. He said Zimbabwe held free and fair elections, but "Western media" had ignored the achievement.
The 14-nation SADC has been accused of being too soft on President Robert Mugabe.
At the opening ceremony, Mugabe received the loudest applause as regional leaders took turns standing up and bowing to a packed audience.
Mugabe sat beside President Thabo Mbeki, who has used quiet diplomacy to try to mediate between the government and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
SADC is expected to review Mbeki's progress report on his efforts. More than 93percent of respondents in an Internet poll in South Africa rated Mbeki's chances of resolving the crisis as "dismal".
SADC's executive secretary Tomaz Salomao told a news conference on Wednesday SADC would consider options including methods he termed "hard line", "quiet diplomacy" or "different".
Chinamasa has suggested quiet diplomacy may not pay off. He said Mugabe's government, accused of widespread human rights abuses, did not see any reason to negotiate with opposition groups, which he accused of attacking civilians and security forces - something SADC denies.
Chinamasa repeated claims that Western powers sought to oust Mugabe because he had seized white-owned farms. He said the issue of human rights was a "smokescreen" for other goals.
The opposition accuses Mugabe's security forces of abuses, including torture - a position backed by Western powers which have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe.
Political tensions are rising as an economic crisis ravages Zimbabweans, suffering from the world's highest inflation rate, more than 4500percent, and severe food and fuel shortages.
Zimbabwe's weak and divided opposition groups, as well as the US and Britain, hope economic pressure will loosen Mugabe's grip after his 27 years in power.
But Mugabe, who denies allegations that his economic management has brought Zimbabwe to its knees, remains defiant. - Sapa-AFP