Africa Watch

New AU chair, Robert Mugabe

The election of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe dominated proceedings at the 24th ordinary summit meeting of the African Union (AU) for all the wrong reasons. 

President Mugabe is the sole surviving head of state to have attended the founding of the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa in 1963. He was then a young representative of Zanu, one of Zimbabwe’s liberation movements.

Mugabe is therefore rightly described as the last remaining link between the politics of liberation and post-colonial politics.

Controversial president

Although his election as AU chairperson was expected, he also currently chairs the South African Development Community (SADC).

His election was controversial and dominated proceedings at the 24th ordinary session of the AU in Addis Ababa. It was controversial because he is controversial.         

Back in 1980 when taking power in an independent Zimbabwe after a hard-fought armed struggle, Mugabe was held in high esteem in the West for preaching reconciliation. Not even the death, on his instructions, of an estimated 30 000 political opponents in Matabeleland during the infamous Gukurahundi massacres a few years later dented his image in the West.

All changed dramatically a couple of decades later with the introduction of his radical land reform programme forcing most of Zimbabwe’s white commercial farmers off their land through violence and intimidation.

Mugabe felt cheated by the British government of Tony Blair when told that Britain, as former colonial power, did not have any legal obligation to support the land reform programme. He saw it as a violation of the agreement reached with the Thatcher government during the Lancaster House independence negotiations.

In targeting the white farming community, the backbone of Zimbabwe’s thriving agriculture sector, Mugabe believed he could recoup his dwindling political popularity.

He also embarked upon a crusade against the West, spewing vitriol against particularly Britain and the US. The West in turn slapped targeted sanctions on him and his political allies, including a travel ban.

Suddenly Mugabe was not welcome in Europe or the US and a few other countries.

He, however, remained defiant and turned the issue on its head, making sanctions the new scapegoat for Zimbabwe’s economic failure.

His defiance and resolute defence of the radical land policy endeared him to many Zimbabweans and also across Africa.

Since then he has extended his radical policies to land-based resources, such as minerals, demanding that foreign companies should give up 51% of their ownership to local partners.

Controversial election     

For many Mugabe’s AU chairmanship defies logic.

In this regard Simon Allison wrote: “For outside observers, it seems remarkable that an organisation like the AU, supposedly committed to values such as democracy, economic development and human rights– not to mention gender equality – can choose someone like Mugabe as its figurehead, given Mugabe’s patchy record in these areas. It is, on the surface, a symbol of its hypocrisy.”

But too much was made of Mugabe’s election. AU chairmanship is for most parts a ceremonial position and wields limited power and influence.

It is the chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), currently South Africa’s Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who wields executive power.

 James Schneider puts Mugabe’s election in perspective: “President Mugabe was nearly the only viable candidate, elected almost by default. The chair rotates between the continent's five regions. This time it was the turn of Southern Africa. The majority of the region's leaders would be unable to serve as chair as they were recently elected (Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia) or are standing down soon.

 “Other candidates would have been unviable. For example, South Africa's Jacob Zuma is the ex-husband of Dlamini-Zuma, which rules him out, Botswana's Ian Khama, is too maverick for the majority of AU member’s states, King Mswati III of Swaziland has no electoral legitimacy as an absolute monarch and Lesotho currently finds itself in a political mess.

 “Mugabe's candidature and election was not a calculated slight against the West or a sign of Africa's rising strength, but a continuation of the status quo.”

The surprise would have been if Mugabe’s nomination had been rejected, although he and his supporters think and believe otherwise.

One commentator wrote: “It represents, for Mugabe at least, an overwhelming endorsement of his decades-long regime in Zimbabwe, and a vindication of his vehement anti-western policies which have made him a pariah in Europe and America, but endeared him to his African counterparts.”

The formal response in Zimbabwe was extravagant and excessive in the extreme – turning Mugabe’s election into a propaganda scoop. The minister of foreign affairs described it as “an expression of confidence in his leadership and appreciation of his status as a senior statesman”.

The ruling Zanu-PF party said it all, describing it as, “Without a doubt Zimbabwe’s moment of great honour and Africa must be proud to be led by such an icon of exceptional qualities”, calling him “a man of impressive intellectual ability, revered across the progressive world for his principled, focused, and courageous and pan-Africanist disposition”, and claiming “universal endorsement by the African leadership is ample evidence that, despite the West’s view of President Mugabe, Africa completely and absolutely adores him and will forever cherish his heroic deeds”.

But Mugabe is not a unanimously popular choice.

Shortly before his election President Mugabe had the humiliating experience of being booed and subjected to chants of “Mugabe must go” when visiting the newly elected president of Zambia in Lusaka. A Zambian analyst concluded that, “...this attitude towards Mugabe symbolises the resentment that many in the region and on the continent, particularly among the young generations, have towards Mugabe.”

An African diplomat in Addis Ababa was quoted as saying that Mugabe’s style “belongs to a past generation, the one that takes power hostage, and this is no longer the AU creed”.

Mugabe’s reaction

On assuming his one year AU chairmanship Mugabe wasted no time before unleashing his customary anti-Western tirade.

In his acceptance speech, Mugabe spoke of the need to guard against foreigners exploiting the continent’s mineral wealth, saying “African resources should belong to Africa and to no one else, except to those we invite as friends. Friends we shall have, yes, but imperialists and colonialists no more”.

He also scoffed at the possible response of the West to his election, saying that is not his business: “My business is to ensure the decisions we take here are implemented. My concern is on uplifting the life of our people, giving them something that will raise their standard of living. For more than 10 years I have been under sanctions, my country has been [under] sanctions. If they want to continue it’s up to them but these sanctions are wrong.” 

But there was also an olive branch to the West: “If Europe comes in the spirit to cooperate and not the spirit to control us and control our ways, they will be very welcome.”

He did suggest that the rest of Africa follow his controversial land reform programme, leaving observers perplexed by the ovation that followed this remark considering the devastating effect of the policy have had on the country’s economy.

A onetime food exporter, Zimbabwe can no longer feed its population and has become a food importer. One-third of the population has emigrated and those who remained by and large struggle to make ends meet. Zimbabwe does not even have its own currency anymore.

The stage is set for Mugabe to use the platform presented to him to preach his favourite subjects: anti-imperialism, resource nationalism and bashing the West.

Western reaction, as expected, was lukewarm and the general view that it will be “business as usual” with the AU. In the words of senior Western diplomat: “We are working with the African Union regardless of the president.”

The European Union (EU) was also quick with an announcement that the ban on Mugabe would be lifted to allow him to travel to the EU in his capacity as AU chair.

A Zanu-PF spokesperson called the temporary lifting of the ban “an effort to hoodwink the continent” and said the announcement was “inconsequential”. 


The irony is that the AU cannot survive without the financial support from those Mugabe so often censures, especially since the death of Libya’s colonel Ghadaffi who used to carry the AU financially.

Presently 72% of the AU’s budget comes from co-operating partners. Only 28% comes from member states.

As one commentator puts it: “Africa’s post-colonial enlightened leaders have failed to achieve a pass rate of more than 28% with respect to funding their most important project, the AU.” 

It is also rich for the new chairman to lecture that the AU’s Agenda 2063, which envisages harnessing human and natural resources for the benefit of all Africans “would be stillborn if the continent continues relying on those who were growing fat on the back of its exploitation” while he himself through his failed and misdirected policies have bankrupted his own country. 

For the benefit of Africa it is important that the hype and rhetoric that accompanied Mugabe’s election as AU chairman pass soon. Attention should focus on what is really important for Africa and its people – improving conditions on the continent to help make Africa the place it has the potential to be.  

by Garth Cilliers

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