'Obscene': Mugabe's arrival at food summit provokes outrage

He inflicted starvation on his nation. Now Mugabe has arrived in Europe for a UN summit to tackle the global food crisis

He's turned up again like a bad penny. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is back in Rome, staying in five-star accommodation for the duration of a United Nations food summit while his people starve as a result of his disastrous farm policies.

The unexpected arrival of President Mugabe and his shopaholic wife, Grace, prompted a flood of international protests yesterday after he joined more than 60 world leaders flying in for the three-day conference. Although the Zimbabwean leader and his wife are targeted by an European Union travel ban, the sanctions do not apply to UN meetings conducted on UN premises.

The grotesque irony of the situation was lost on no one. "Robert Mugabe going to Rome for the food summit is like Pol Pot going to a human rights convention," said Lord Malloch-Brown, the Foreign Office minister for Africa, referring to the mastermind of the Cambodian genocide.

The British representative to the meeting, Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, said Mr Mugabe's appearance was "obscene".

"This meeting is supposed to be about increasing the supply of food," Mr Alexander told BBC Radio, "while his policies have exactly the reverse effect in Zimbabwe." His presence in Rome was "an affront to all Zimbabweans who are suffering hunger, destitution and poverty as a direct result of his rule". That view was echoed by representatives from the United States, Australia and the Netherlands.

After last month's disputed elections, Zimbabwe's crisis is more desperate than ever. Death squads haunt the land: as reported on The Independent's front page yesterday, the tortured and broken body of one of Mr Mugabe's most courageous opponents, Tonderai Ndira, was found weeks after he had been dragged from his home in his underwear. In recent months, tens of thousands of Zimbabweans have fled abroad to escape the hunger, violence and desperate poverty of their homeland, where inflation is running at 165,000 per cent.

Today the Mugabes can get away from all that. They are staying in the reassuringly luxurious surroundings of the Via Veneto, this time at the Ambasciatori Palace Hotel Rome, which describes itself as "deep inside 'La Dolce Vita'", and where the room rates range from €210 (£170) to €900 per night. Grace Mugabe will not have to go far to indulge in one of her shopping sprees: the world's most refined and expensive bags and shoes are all a short trundle from the hotel.

In 2002, he was here with his wife and an entourage of 10, staying at the five-star Hotel Excelsior. In 2005, he flew in for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, and trapped the Prince of Wales into a handshake. Now he is here again, for the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation's (FAO) summit on world food security, climate change and bioenergy, to the embarrassment of the organisers and many participants, thumbing his nose at the rest of the world less than a month before the 84-year old faces his first ever run-off presidential election.

An FAO spokesman said the UN can exercise no influence over who a given member state chooses to represent it at the meeting, "nor should it". He said that 185 of the UN's 191 members will be represented, "and who they choose to represent them is entirely their business". The Mugabes will not even have to put their hands in their pockets: the UN has set up a trust fund to pay an allowance for the delegations from poorer countries.

Mr Alexander said he condemned Mr Mugabe's presence at the summit and would neither meet him nor shake his hand. However, there are calls for the cabinet minister to boycott the meeting altogether, after Gordon Brown refused to attend December's EU-Africa summit over Mr Mugabe's presence in Lisbon.

Some Labour MPs tabled a Commons protest motion calling for Mr Alexander to stay away and criticised ministers for double standards on Zimbabwe. Harry Cohen said: "It's unbelievable that Douglas Alexander should turn up at the same conference as Robert Mugabe after the boycott by Gordon Brown. There is a total lack of consistency and double standards by the Government." He warned: "Mugabe is facing elections and is going to play this for all it is worth ... Douglas Alexander is playing into his hands. And it will do no favours for the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai."

The calls for a boycott were supported by Ian Gibson, the former Labour chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, who said it was "shocking" that Mr Mugabe should be attending a conference on food shortages when he had wrecked the food economy of his own country.

"I don't think Mugabe will listen to a word a British minister says," said Mr Gibson. "Douglas Alexander should take his lead from Gordon Brown and stay away." But Mr Brown's official spokesman insisted last night that the minister would attend the UN meeting as planned.

The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ensured that he will receive an equally frosty welcome from Western leaders when he arrives tonight. He told foreign guests in Tehran yesterday marking the 19th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that "the criminal and terrorist Zionist regime [Israel]... will soon disappear off the geographical scene".

But last night it was Mr Mugabe's moment in the limelight. If anything, he will have been amused to learn that – as reported on Channel 4 News last night – Britain has taken the first step towards stripping him of the honorary knighthood awarded in 1994.

The First Shopper

Forget First Lady. Grace Mugabe is known as the First Shopper of Zimbabwe. The former secretary and mistress of Robert Mugabe, she laid bare her appetite for all things luxurious when the pair finally married in 1996, inviting 12,000 people to the wedding, the most lavish event the country had ever seen.

Forty years her senior, President Mugabe bowed to his young bride's request for a grand family mansion in Harare, and no expense was spared on the decor. He also commandeered the national airline to whisk her around the world on elaborate shopping sprees.

The latest destination for the Imelda Marcos of Africa is the Eternal City, where she is ensconced on the Via Veneto, a stone's throw from Rome's many designer shops. Confronted with her opulent tastes while her homeland teeters on the brink, she goes on the defensive, telling one reporter who tailed her on a previous trip around the boutiques of Paris: "Is it a crime to go shopping? These shops are here for people to shop in."

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
news
Life & Style
tech
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates his goal
sport
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
Life & Style
Infant child breast-feeding with eyes closed
healthTo stop mummy having any more babies, according to scientists
News
news
Arts & Entertainment
film
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Arts & Entertainment
Homer meets Lego Marge in the 25th anniversary episode of The Simpsons, set to air on 4 May
tv
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal