JOHANNESBURG, July 2 (Reuters) - The African Union has crossed a watershed by handing an unprecedented rebuff to President Robert Mugabe, but the move could remain largely symbolic without strong follow-up in Zimbabwe.
A two-day summit of the AU held immediately after Mugabe's re-election in a widely condemned and violent poll called on Tuesday for him to enter talks leading to a unity government.
The resolution was a compromise between the tougher demands of one group of generally younger leaders and an older, less democratic group more accustomed to the principles of non-interference that discredited the AU's predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity.
African leaders are usually very reluctant to criticise one of their own and like to keep their disputes behind closed doors while working out a consensus.
But Zimbabwe's violence and the widening impact of the catastrophic collapse of its economy forced a change.
Mugabe's critics had wanted direct action against the former guerrilla leader after an election campaign in which the opposition says 86 of its followers were murdered.
Botswana and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga both called for Mugabe to be barred from African meetings.
Another leading critic, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, was sidelined by a stroke, but Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation also spoke out against Mugabe.
Critics, especially in the West, might see the resolution as a toothless compromise that was a weak punishment for Mugabe, seen as a liberation war hero and in power since independence in 1980.
But analysts say the implicit criticism of Mugabe, 84, more accustomed to standing ovations at African meetings, was very significant in the AU context.
"The respect of fellow leaders and the idea of solidarity in the AU is very important. Which is why what seems to outsiders as mild criticism can mean a lot," said Tom Cargill of Britain's Chatham House think tank.
Patrick Smith, editor of the Africa Confidential newsletter agreed, saying Mugabe was backed by senior AU leaders Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, in power since 1969, and Gabon's President Omar Bongo, who has ruled since 1967.
"It is moving in a direction that would have been absolutely unthinkable a decade ago... In principle, if the resolution is carried through to its logical conclusion it is a significant move by the AU," Smith said.
However, there are major questions over how significant the African Union can be in Zimbabwe's crisis where Mugabe, backed by hardline leaders of the security forces and loyal militias, still holds all the levers of power.
Analysts agree that violence must end before negotiations can work. "The opposition is being slaughtered. You clearly cannot have talks under those conditions," Smith said.
He added that the AU's action would be judged by detailed follow-through on the resolution, noting there were no sanctions for non-compliance and the organisation would have to act as an external guarantor if negotiations were to succeed.
Mark Schroeder, sub-Saharan director of risk analysis firm Stratfor, said the resolution lacked muscle.
"Bottom line is I think it is kind of toothless...The big question is, are they going to be able to back that up with action? Would they sanction the Mugabe regime?"
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who beat Mugabe in the first round on March 29 but withdrew from the runoff because of violence, on Wednesday rejected talks until violence ended.
Schroeder said "emotions are just too raw and too tense" now for any deal to be done. He believes it could take years to negotiate a transfer of power, which would depend on granting immunity from war crimes charges to hardliners around Mugabe.
One key driver for Mugabe's new critics in the AU is the negative effect that Zimbabwe's chaos -- it is racked by the world's worst inflation rate -- has across the whole continent and particularly the neighbouring region, flooded by millions of economic refugees.
Botswana made the harshest speech at the summit against Mugabe, saying his election was illegitimate.
"They are tired, sick of foreign investors worrying about investing in Botswana and the region because of worrying about what is happening in Zimbabwe. It is a source of frustration for them and they have had enough of it," Cargill said.
Smith said that even West African leaders were angered by headlines on Zimbabwe talking about "Africa's shame."
"When they go to float their bonds and borrow money to buy new generating capacity and somebody says 'but Africa is falling apart, look at Zimbabwe,' they get enormously annoyed."
But there are other motives too.
Odinga, who owes his position to a power-sharing deal that ended Kenya's own bloody post-election crisis earlier this year, attacks Mugabe as a coded way of getting at his own rival President Mwai Kibaki, some observers believe.
With his eye on succeeding Kibaki, he is also keen to win kudos with Washington, a bitter critic of Mugabe, they say.
Some analysts also see AU support in Zimbabwe for the kind of unity government now in power in Kenya as an undemocratic trend because it might ignore the result of a legitimate election to defuse a political dispute
"Does that mean recognition of the results of elections that Africa's very same observers indicated were problematic?" asked Matlotleng Matlou, director of the Africa Institute of South Africa .
(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet