President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has accused the European Union of promoting “gay values” by refusing his wife Grace a visa to travel with him to this week’s EU-Africa summit in Brussels.
The 90-year-old called on other African leaders to join him in a boycott of the key meeting, which begins on Tuesday and was expected to bring together representatives of 90 nations from the two continents, including 65 heads of state.
Last week the EU said that while it had waived a travel ban on Mugabe so that he could attend the summit, it had disallowed a similar request from his wife.
The Mugabes are the only two Zimbabwean officials still under an EU asset freeze and travel ban following more than a decade of human rights abuses and alleged election rigging.
Brussels insists that the programme of the summit “does not have any role for spouses.”
Aldo Dell’Ariccia, the EU ambassador to Zimbabwe, told the official Herald newspaper: “The invitation that was extended to President Mugabe to attend the fourth [EU-Africa] summit and the exceptional measures that we have taken to make sure that he participates is a demonstration of the willingness of the EU to engage in dialogue with Zimbabwe.”
But in an angry tirade in the same paper, Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba said that refusing Grace a visa showed the EU did not respect “the sanctity of African marriage”.
Mugabe would, therefore, not attend, it was reported.
The president now wants the head of the AU, Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, to persuade other member states to boycott the meeting too, though analysts believe they are unlikely to agree to this.
Late on Friday, Zimbabwe’s foreign minister Samuel Mumbengegwi told state ZBC television: “We expect that the chair of the African Union must consult with other member states… this is arrogance of the highest order.”
In increasingly poor health, Mugabe refers to his wife as his caretaker.
The 48-year-old former secretary accompanies the president on every medical trip to Singapore and to every summit outside Zimbabwe – and she never misses a chance to shop. During Zimbabwe’s decade of shortages from 2000, Grace earned the nickname of “First Shopper” because of her frequent foreign shopping trips.
And despite a flurry of philanthropic gestures in recent years – which include setting up an orphanage on a former white-owned farm and taking in the children of prisoners – that reputation has stuck.
Presidential spokesman Charamba yesterday defended her right to shop in Europe.
“Why did the EU colonise Africa in the first place but to create markets for its finished goods?” he asked in his Herald newspaper column.
“By putting apart what God has knitted together in matrimony, Europe is seeking to be that God, indeed to challenge the sanctity of African marriage [which is] a prologue to the insertion of gay values,” he added.
“If Africa does not act as one, or at the very least as a majority bloc, then her chance to enforce equality is irretrievably lost.
“It is not about the First Lady.”
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change – which still disputes Mugabe’s victory in last July’s election – has welcomed the EU’s decision to refuse Grace a visa.
Former MP Job Sikhala wrote on his Facebook page: “All Zimbabweans know that when Mugabe is busy dozing in the summits, Grace will be busy traversing one street to the other, shopping everything coming into her sight.
“Africa cannot be held at ransom because of the greediness of one First Lady from some poor country whose husband and greediness has destroyed that country.”
Zimbabweans were this month allowed a rare glimpse of the First Family’s affluence when Mugabe’s only daughter, Bona, married her pilot fiancé in an extravagant ceremony reputed to have cost at least £2.1 million.
The celebrations were in stark contrast to the mood of pessimism currently prevailing in the southern African country.
Companies are closing down, 2,000 workers have been laid off this month – and last week the finance ministry warned it would have to delay paying civil servants until it collected enough taxes.
In a gloomy assessment a visiting IMF team said last week that Zimbabwe’s period of economic rebound post-2009 was finally over.