Southern African leaders gathering in summit on Saturday in Lusaka, Zambia, to look for solutions to the increasingly charged post-election crisis in Zimbabwe may lack the benefit of input from President Robert Mugabe, whose state media said Friday he will not be attending and instead will be sending three ministers to represent him.
Harare's announcement looked to many observers like a snub to the Southern African Development Community and its chairman, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who called the emergency summit this week in response to the rising political temperature in Zimbabwe, where results of the March 29 presidential election remain unknown.
Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga had complained earlier that Harare wasn't consulted before the emergency summit was called.
State radio said Mr. Mugabe would be represented in Lusaka by Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, Rural Affairs Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Joey Bimha. State radio quoted Bimha as saying the summit was unnecessary.
Diplomatic pressure on Harare mounted, meanwhile, from outside the region.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement late Friday saying he was “pleased that regional leaders are mobilizing and coordinating to help Zimbabwe overcome its post-electoral crisis through peaceful means.”
Ban added that he is “concerned that the situation in Zimbabwe could deteriorate if there is no prompt action to resolve this impasse.”
Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who was instrumental bringing the two sides together in Kenya's deadly post-election conflict, the SADC leaders have a "grave responsibility to act, not only because of the negative spillover effects on the region, but also to ensure that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are respected."
Annan concluded: "The Zimbabwean people deserve no less."
ZANU-PF sources said Mr. Mugabe’s representatives will argue that it is premature for SADC to take up a matter that is still before the courts – this a reference to a case brought in the Harare high court in an effort to force the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to release the results of the presidential election.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change grouping of Morgan Tsvangirai, a candidate in the presidential election, has maintained since soon after the ballot that Tsvangirai won an outright majority of at least 50.3% of the vote, and has rejected proposals by Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party for a presidential runoff election.
The Tsvangirai MDC formation and various civil society groups have charged that the government is stepping up a campaign of intimidation and violence in rural areas in an effort to cow voters who shifted allegiance to the opposition in the elections. Official results showed the two MDC factions claimed a majority in the house of assembly - however ZANU-PF has embarked on what some say are coercive recounts.
From Lusaka, correspondent Thomas Chiripasi of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe told reporter Blessing Zulu that Zambian media on Friday played down reports that Mr. Mugabe would probably stand up his regional peers at the summit.
Political analyst Peter Kagwanja, Africa division director at the Human Science Research Council in Pretoria, South Africa, told Blessing Zulu that Mr. Mugabe's absence from the summit could lead to an intensification of the crisis.
Zimbabwean authorities meanwhile announced a ban on political rallies and other public assemblies as Tsvangirai's opposition formation said it would call a general strike on Tuesday if the presidential results were not announced on Monday.
Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena, an assistant commissioner, said all rallies have been banned. He said the police force has been stretched thin with many deployed nationwide to prevent violence while others are guarding ballot boxes.