Britain's colonial legacy in Africa became the focus of criticism at the Earth Summit yesterday after sustained attacks on Tony Blair by two of the continent's most controversial heads of state were widely applauded by delegates.
Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe, used his time at the podium to defend the mass expropriation of white farms and to attack Mr Blair for interfering in his country's internal affairs. He barely touched on the environment during his extraordinary tirade against Mr Blair, who stayed away during the speech.
"Blair keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe," Mr Mugabe said. He spoke as the crucial negotiations on the summit declaration became bogged down in arguments over energy.
To rapturous applause from the developing country delegates, Mr Mugabe accused Mr Blair of "unwarranted interference in our domestic affairs". The Prime Minister, already in a poor mood after being snubbed by President George Bush, became the target of a backlash by Third World representatives that revealed a deep well of animosity to the West and sympathy for Mr Mugabe's viewpoint.
Earlier, the Prime Minister had to endure an angry attack from Namibia's President, Sam Nujoma, who drew applause as he departed from his prepared speech to deliver a full-frontal attack on former colonial powers and, in particular, Mr Blair.
Jabbing his finger from the podium he said: "Here in southern Africa we have one problem ... Blair is here ... the man who went out to campaign for sanctions against Zimbabwe while the British owned 80 per cent of Zimbabwe's land."
Mr Blair, who has described poverty in Africa as "a scar on our consciences" pointedly ignored the criticism. The Prime Minister concentrated instead on issues relating directly to the summit, particularly the Kyoto Protocol on climate change which he urged all countries to sign, notably the US, Canada and Australia.
But Mr Mugabe was in defiant mood. He said: "We are prepared to shed our blood for the maintenance and sustenance of our independence." He said Zimbabwe had fought hard for its independence and insisted the poor had the right to use their national sovereignty to fight poverty without interference.
"Let no one interfere with our process," Mr Mugabe said. He said that land reform came before anything else in Zimbabwe. "Let no one who is negative try to spoil what we are doing," he said.
Mr Mugabe said white commercial farmers who owned several farms would be allowed to keep at least one. "No farmer is being left without land, we are threatening no one," he said.
"We wish no harm to anyone, we are Zimbabweans, we are Africans, we are not English, we are not Europeans. We love Africa, we love Zimbabwe, we love our independence."
He continued, without apparent irony to say Harare was working to defend the environment. "We keep our forests, we keep our animals, we keep even our reptiles plus insects. We look after elephants and ivory, we look after our lions as they roar everywhere," he said.
Mr Blair hit back during a visit to the townships, warning that the policy could damage Africa as a whole. He said: "The government of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is impoverishing its people and ruining its economy. When they do that behind the cloak of attacks on colonialisation, they do enormous damage, not just to people in Zimbabwe but they make it difficult for those of us who are really fighting for Africa to fight for it effectively."
The Prime Minister insisted that Mr Mugabe represented only a "minority view" and that the "vast majority" of African leaders supported the principles of good governance and Britain's efforts on aid and development.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies