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."
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