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Why Mugabe attracts Africans and repels the West

As Africa applauds its oldest ruling freedom fighter, Zimbabwe teeters on economic ruin.

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WESTERN dignitaries attending festivities to mark a decade of South Africa's democracy on April 27, 2004, were struck mute by the deafening applause that greeted Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe.

"I cannot figure out why he is being applauded when he has destroyed his country," protested Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister and president of the Western think tank, the International Crisis Group.

Mr. Mugabe remains both an enigma and a magnet, attracting Africans and repelling the West. He is at the center of a seven-year-old game of brinkmanship between Africa and the West, fostered by diametrically opposed responses to Zimbabwe's seizure of land owned by some 4,500 white farmers in 2000. Since then, the two sides have looked each other in the eye to see who would blink first.

This face-off hovered over the summit of Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders last month in Lusaka, Zambia, and now haunts the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda this November and the upcoming Euro-Africa summit in Portugal in December.

Mugabe's fall from grace in the eyes of the West is a relatively recent phenomenon in his 27 years in power. Now portrayed as the archetypal bare-fisted dictator, he was hailed by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as "a man I can do business with." And in 1994, Queen Elizabeth bestowed on him an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.

What inflamed relations with Britain was the injudicious denial by Tony Blair's Laborites in 1997 of Britain's colonial responsibility for land reform. Clare Short, Britain's secretary of state for international development, wrote to Zimbabwe's minister of agriculture and land: "We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and, as you know, we were colonized not colonizers."

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