Robert Mugabe was hailing a political victory yesterday after African leaders from the regional bloc SADC backed his calls to end international sanctions targeted at members of his regime.
The statement of support, which came at the end of a regional summit, was a setback for Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai who had pleaded with regional governments to keep them in place until Mr Mugabe's faction met the terms of a power-sharing agreement.
The public backing for the veteran autocrat has yet again called into question the SADC's neutrality in dealing with the crisis in Zimbabwe. Since the sudden death of Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa last year, the bloc has lost its leading critic of Mr Mugabe. The replacement of South Africa's Thabo Mbeki with Jacob Zuma has disappointed those hoping for a stronger line from Zimbabwe's neighbours.
A statement at the end of a two-day SADC summit "noted the progress made in the implementation of the Global Political Agreement" in Zimbabwe and went on to call on the international community "to remove all forms of sanctions against Zimbabwe". The move was quickly welcomed by George Charamba, Mr Mugabe's spokesman, who dismissed the sanctions as "unjustifiable and illegal".
Mr Tsvangirai, who has been struggling to hold together the unity government with his bitter political foe, has argued forcefully that the sanctions offer the only leverage over Mr Mugabe's old guard who have been resisting reforms.
The former trade union leader was promised an extraordinary summit to conduct a detailed assessment of progress under the power-sharing accord before any call would be made on sanctions. But the Kinshasa meeting ended with no mention of this.
With the International Monetary Fund signalling earlier this week that it would resume lending to the former pariah state, the SADC's support could also spark a free-for-all among Mugabe cronies who after nearly four decades in power control most of the country's remaining businesses and commercial assets.
In an attempt to appease Mr Tsvangirai, South Africa appeared yesterday to row back on the call to end sanctions. South Africa's Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, told parliament that a special summit to help ensure accountability among Zimbabwe's political protagonists was still possible.
He said the SADC leadership would "monitor resolution to all these outstanding issues and if that does not produce the desired results an extraordinary summit will be convened" to add "more fillip... to the process of moving Zimbabwe forward".
However, Mr Motlanthe's vague comments are unlikely to reassure critics of the Mugabe regime.
Foreign diplomats in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, were insisting last night that no steps to drop sanctions were being considered.
The 85-year-old President has long blamed the country's economic woes on what he calls "sanctions against Zimbabwe". In reality the complex embargo is made up of mechanisms such as travel bans and asset freezes aimed at preventing Mr Mugabe's advisers, allies and cronies from further looting the economy.
Analysts point out that the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy dates back to 2001 and the decision to launch land invasions which destroyed the country's agricultural sector. Hyperinflation then followed as the central bank reserves were looted for hard currency by those closely connected to the ruling Zanu-PF party.
There have been fragile signs of recovery in the shattered southern African nation with schools and some hospitals reopening and a switch to the US dollar ending hyperinflation. But human rights abuses continue.Reuse content