LISBON (Reuters) - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe will attend a European Union-Africa summit in December in Lisbon, a spokesman said on Tuesday, triggering a boycott of the meeting by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
“We got the invitation last week and we are going,” George Charamba, Mugabe’s spokesman, told Reuters in Mozambique.
Brown told reporters in London nothing will be gained from dialogue between Britain and Mugabe and that the Zimbabwean leader must “take full responsibility” for the collapse of his country’s economy and society.
“We will not be prepared to sit down at the same table as Mugabe,” Brown said.
Charamba, Mugabe’s spokesman dismissed Britain’s objections, saying: “The British fear a handshake. We can’t expect timid characters to be where men are.”
The dispute between cast a shadow on the first meeting between the continents’ leaders in seven years.
Previous EU-Africa efforts to meet have foundered over whether Mugabe, accused by the West of widespread human rights violations but who Africa sees as an independence hero, should be invited.
Pressed by rising competition from China in Africa, the EU is determined that this year’s summit on December 8-9 should take place, in part to solidify its position as Africa’s largest trading partner.
A spokesman for Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said he would fly to Zimbabwe on Wednesday to meet Mugabe to try to resolve the dispute between Harare and London.
“President Wade’s visit is in the framework of the Lisbon summit because in order for the summit to be a success, it is necessary for everyone to be there,” presidential spokeswoman Fatou Tandian told Reuters in Dakar.
Portugal has come under fire from human rights activists for the invitation to Mugabe, but African leaders have said they would not attend the Lisbon meeting if Zimbabwe were excluded.
Western critics accuse Mugabe of ruining Zimbabwe’s economy, rigging elections and violently suppressing opposition.
Mugabe denies he has wrecked the economy with policies such as seizing white-owned farms for blacks with little experience, and he blames Western pressure — notably former colonial power Britain — for hyperinflation and hunger.
The EU agreed earlier this month to send a “clear and tough” message to Mugabe on human rights at the summit.
In Brussels, an EU source said Portugal would formally notify member states this week that it would waive an EU visa ban to enable Mugabe and his senior aides to travel to Portugal.
Under a deal agreed in the EU, no member state was expected to object despite Britain’s misgivings, he said.
Only Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek would join Brown in staying away. Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, which had hesitated, have informed the Portuguese presidency that their prime ministers will attend, the EU source added.
The EU presidency spokeswoman, who confirmed Mugabe would attend, said the full list of attendees was still not available.
The EU source said a plan to send an EU special envoy to study the situation in Zimbabwe would not be carried out until after the summit to avoid any risk of undermining South African President Thabo Mbeki’s efforts to broker a deal between Mugabe and opposition parties on holding free elections next year.
Portugal’s Foreign Minister Luis Amado, who invited Mugabe, recently said he would prefer him not to come because his presence could distract from the essential point of the summit.
“We deeply regret that what is being done to innovate and truly transform the relationship between Europe and Africa is being dampened by some obsession by the media around the president of Zimbabwe,” Joao Cravinho, Portuguese secretary of state for foreign affairs, told TSF radio in Lisbon.
Reporting by Paul Taylor in Brussels, Axel Bugge in Lisbon, Sophie Walker in London, and MacDonald Dzirutwe in Mozambique, editing by Mary Gabriel