PRETORIA, Jan 26 – Southern African leaders gathered Monday in a renewed bid to end Zimbabwe’s political crisis amid a fresh threat by President Robert Mugabe to form a government without arch rival Morgan Tsvangirai.
Heads of state from the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) are trying to salvage a power-sharing pact signed by Mugabe and opposition leader Tsvangirai in September, one week after talks in Harare between the pair collapsed in acrimony.
Monday’s talks take place as the European Union slaps fresh sanctions on Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe, which is battling a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 2,800 people and infected more than 50,000.
But ahead of the summit’s scheduled start at 0900 GMT, Mugabe’s deputy information minister sought to pile pressure on Tsvangirai to accept a deal by saying the veteran president was ready to go it alone.
"This summit is the last summit that is going to discuss this issue of an inclusive government," deputy information minister Bright Matonga told South African public radio.
"If it does not work today, definitely when the president comes back here (Harare), he has to form a new government with or without Morgan Tsvangirai.
"The way forward, soon after this summit whether there is an agreement or there is no agreement, President Mugabe is going to form a cabinet, 15 cabinet ministers, eight deputy ministers of ZANU-PF," Matonga added in reference to Mugabe’s ruling party.
"He will obviously try to leave room for Tsvangirai so that whenever he changes his mind… but that is not going to be for too long."
Tsvangirai’s spokesman George Sibotshiwe declined to comment on the minister’s statement which he simply dismissed as "nonsense".
"We cannot comment on that statement for obvious reasons. For us in the MDC, what he said is nonsense," he told AFP.
As leaders meet, several civil society groups were expected to picket in Pretoria to urge tougher action by SADC.
The summit marks the fourth time that all SADC members, traditionally reluctant to condemn the worsening crisis, have gathered to discuss Zimbabwe’s crisis since disputed elections last March.
Among them will be Botswana President Ian Khama, one of Mugabe’s strongest critics among the African leaders. His government called Sunday on the regional leaders to "go to the core" of the political deadlock.
March’s first round presidential election, in which Tsvangirai placed first but did not win an outright majority, was followed by a brutal wave of political violence.
Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off, citing violence against his supporters, leaving Mugabe to declare a one-sided victory in June.
Since then Zimbabwe has plunged deeper into crisis amid massive unemployment and crippling hyperinflation, with half the population dependent on food aid.
Mugabe and Tsvangirai, who is the leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, signed a deal on September 15 to form a unity government but it has yet to be implemented.
The pact has floundered over which party will control top public posts, including the home affairs ministry which oversees the police, and Mugabe has threatened to form a government with Tsvangirai on a number of occasions.
Regional leaders see Zimbabwe’s unity deal, which allows for 84-year-old Mugabe to remain president while Tsvangirai becomes prime minister, as the best chance to rescue the country from political and economic meltdown.