Robert Mugabe was sworn in for a sixth term as President of Zimbabwe yesterday ahead of his departure to an African Union summit where he is expected to seek recognition for his "overwhelming" victory in an election in which he was the sole candidate.
The only president Zimbabwe has known since independence is facing mounting calls for fresh elections after African observers refused to sanction a poll dominated by a violent campaign of intimidation that prompted opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to withdraw from last Friday's run-off.
Despite official results claiming that he had won more than two million votes and 85 per cent of the ballot, the election has been dismissed as a "sham" by much of the international community. The inauguration, which followed a 21-gun salute and military fly-past, came within hours of the official results being published. The 84-year-old former school teacher swore to uphold the laws of the nation "so help me God". The few remaining dignitaries prepared to be associated with the pariah looked on from the cover of a red-carpeted tent in the grounds of the State House in Harare.
Mr Mugabe used the occasion to make an opaque call for "serious talks" with the opposition. "Indeed, it is my hope that sooner rather than later, we shall, as diverse political parties, hold consultation towards ... dialogue as we minimise our differences," he said.
Mr Tsvangirai refused an invitation to attend the ceremony saying he would not give "legitimacy" to a process he had been forced to boycott. He had called for talks before Friday's vote but ruled out the prospect of serving in a government led by Mr Mugabe.
Sources close to another opposition faction said they had already been approached by the regime over a possible national unity government. The group, a splinter from the MDC, said they had refused the proposal after it emerged that the larger Tsvangirai faction was to be excluded in the deal.
Lord Malloch-Brown, the Foreign Office minister for Africa, speaking before he left London for the African Union summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, expressed caution about the feelers sent out by Mr Mugabe. "This is a man who, domestically and internationally repeatedly broke his word to Zimbabweans and the international community. If he says he wants negotiations at the 11th hour ... he is utterly untrustworthy, he has lost an election, he has unleashed appalling violence and managed to fake a win. I hope the Africans won't be seduced by nice words from President Mugabe."
Earlier in the day, the observer mission from the Pan-African parliament denounced the poll as not being "free and fair" called for a re-run of the elections.
"The current atmosphere prevailing in the country did not give rise to conditions for the holding of free and fair democratic elections," said Marwick Khumalo, head of the observer team.
Negotiations would have to be held before fresh elections could be held. Lord Malloch-Brown pointed out that there would only be international support for a solution that reflected the outcome of the first round of voting on 29 March. "Our view is that Tsvangirai and the MDC should be the senior partner" in any transitional arrangement, he said. African observers saw clear evidence of violent intimidation across the country including abductions, beatings and two people shot dead. "Credible elections (should be held) as soon as possible in line with the African Union declaration on the principles governing democratic elections."
African leaders appeared divided ahead of the two-day summit. Kenya's Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, called for the AU to deploy troops. "What is happening in Zimbabwe is a shame and an embarrassment to Africa in the eyes of the international community and should be denounced," he said. Mr Mugabe, meanwhile, praised President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa for his efforts to bring "harmony and peace". The MDC wants the AU – whose reputation is on the line at the summit – to refuse to recognise the re-election. Official results claimed a 42 per cent turn out on Friday, directly contradicting hundreds of independent observers who witnessed empty polling stations across the country.
42.37 per cent
Source: Zimbabwe Electoral Commission
What next for Zimbabwe?
Urged by the Pan-African observer mission, which observed the run-off vote and declared that the polling had not been free and fair. Morgan Tsvangirai says he wants negotiations on a new constitution and a fresh election. These proposals could be discussed at the African Union summit in Egypt but they are unlikely to be accepted by Robert Mugabe, who will probably argue that he has been legitimately re-elected.
*National unity government
Mr Tsvangirai has already rejected national unity government on Mr Mugabe's terms and the rest of the world would not deal with any government that does not reflect the results of the first round of the election, which was won by Mr Tsvangirai. There is growing consensus outside Zimbabwe that a power-sharing arrangement which places Mr Tsvangirai in the driving seat is the best way out of the crisis.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu yesterday urged intervention by a UN force spearheaded by African troops if necessary, but this proposal would not be accepted by South Africa, China and Russia on the UN Security Council. The African Union's security chief played down any prospect of African peacekeepers moving into Zimbabwe, saying that any intervention like this needed to come about as the result of a peace agreement.
President Bush has called for a UN arms embargo against Zimbabwe. Could work if implemented by South Africa, which reportedly supplies weapons. China also sends weapons to Mr Mugabe, ruling out agreement in the UN Security Council. Mr Bush is also examining bilateral measures. Existing EU and US travel bans and an assets freeze on Mr Mugabe and 130 associates have failed to curb their behaviour. Britain is planning further sanctions.