Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo was friendly if somewhat curt when he jetted into Harare, Zimbabwe, just before midnight last night to declare the African Union was not here to run the elections.
“We are here not to conduct an election, we are here to observe the conduct of an election,” he told reporters at the Harare International Airport shortly after landing in a Nigerian Air Force Falcon jet.
Obasanjo is heading a team of 60 AU observers who are monitoring the July 31 election as well as the run-up to it.
After a short statement setting out the AU’s position, Obasanjo refused to take questions from the small contingent of journalists that had gathered to meet him on the tarmac. “Don’t put your hand into my mouth because I might bite you,” he joked when a reporter tried to ask him a question.
The AU mission has been criticised by some opponents of Zanu-PF who believed the country was not ready to host elections while AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had said the opposite during a visit to the country this week.
This is despite concerns by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that logistical and security problems had not been properly addressed ahead of the polls, and that media freedom was still an issue.
Obasanjo’s relationship with Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe is also somewhat frosty after Mugabe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002. Obasanjo, together with former president Thabo Mbeki and then Australian prime minister John Howard, recommended the expulsion over human rights violations during farm invasions and elections.
The Pan African Forum, a group reportedly linked to Zanu-PF, rejected Obasanjo’s leadership of the AU mission, saying he was “divisive”. Reports that the Zimbabwean government had tried to delay Obasanjo’s arrival have been denied.
Dlamini-Zuma this week said Obasanjo would only come into Zimbabwe if invited by government. “I think he will come, if he is allowed he will come. (The government) allowed me to come. The government is obviously hosting us. There is no other meaning to what we have said,” she told journalists.
Obasanjo, however, has been praised for his stance, expressed at a symposium in South Africa earlier this year, that non-African election observer missions should be banned from monitoring polls on the continent because they were sometimes biased, and that undermined the sovereignty of African countries.
The vote on Wednesday is aimed at ending a troubled power-sharing government formed four years ago by Mugabe and MDC-T leader and long-time rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. It was organised following the adoption of a new constitution in March.
Mugabe and Tsvangirai are the main presidential candidates out of four, after Kisinoti Mukwazhe yesterday withdrew from the race and threw his weight behind Mugabe. The other candidates are Welshman Ncube, a possible kingmaker who has been very critical of Tsvangirai, and Dumiso Dabengwa.
Mugabe hosts his final rally in the 60 000 seater National Sports Stadium in Harare today, while Tsvangirai’s final rally in the city is tomorrow.
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