LILONGWE, Malawi (AFP) – Southern African leaders called Sunday for the West to lift sanctions against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle as they gave their seal of approval to his victory in disputed elections.
Wrapping up its annual summit, the 15-nation Southern African Development Community called for "the lifting of all forms of sanctions hitherto imposed on Zimbabwe", levelled against the veteran president and blacklisted firms and individuals.
"I believe Zimbabwe deserves better, Zimbabweans have suffered enough," said the regional bloc's incoming chairwoman, President Joyce Banda of Malawi.
The SADC also commended the government of Zimbabwe "for the peaceful manner in which elections were conducted" and congratulated Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party for their overwhelming win in the July 31 vote.
In a further display of confidence in the 89-year old, the leaders appointed Mugabe the deputy chairman of the group and voted that Zimbabwe will host the next SADC summit in July next year.
Mugabe's main rival, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, has cried foul over the election, which he says was rigged.
He lodged an electoral petition with the courts, but withdrew it a week later saying he would not get a fair hearing.
That cleared the way for the inauguration of Mugabe, already in power for 33 years. He will take his oath of office on Thursday to begin a fresh five-year mandate, his seventh.
Mugabe, Africa's oldest leader, first took the reins of a newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980 as prime minister. He became president following a constitutional amendment in 1987.
Zimbabwean pro-democracy activists who travelled to Malawi to lobby the summit said they were disturbed by the SADC's endorsement of the vote.
The SADC "failed" Zimbabweans and set a "wrong precedent for democratic elections", said Thabani Nyoni, a spokesman for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, which represents 70 rights groups.
"It kills people's hopes to change things through an electoral process," he told AFP.
Rights activists are now calling for the creation of an SADC electoral tribunal to help "promote electoral democracy in the region through internationally accepted standards of fair and credible elections," Nyoni said.
A 600-strong SADC observer mission judged Zimbabwe's vote free and peaceful, but has not yet commented on its fairness.
SADC chairwoman Banda told reporters the SADC is still waiting for final reports from its observers and from the African Union before it can declare the election "fair and credible."
The two-day summit also discussed the political stand-off on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar and the conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Madagascar has been suspended from the SADC since strongman Andry Rajoelina toppled Marc Ravalomanana in 2009.
As the summit was mid-way through, a breakthrough was scored back in Madagascar as the country's electoral court took a "bold decision" to bar Rajoelina and other disputed contenders from running for president in upcoming elections.
That move paved the way to organise the vote, stalled since July.
Madagascar has been in political limbo since Rajoelina, a former disc jockey and ex-mayor of the capital Antananarivo, ousted Ravalomanana in a coup four years ago.
On DR Congo, the summit resolved to call for an "urgent" international conference on the Great Lakes region.
A quarter-million people have fled their homes in the region since last year when the M23 rebel group took up arms against government troops in the mineral-rich but chronically unstable east of the country.