Mugabe and the African Union: Western Hype or Serious Threat?

This past month, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was appointed Chairman of the African Union (A.U.). Media reactions to Mr Mugabe’s appointment have varied widely, describing it as a snub to the West, a sign of Africa’s demise or rise, or as a relic of a bygone era rearing its head one last time. None of these appraisals is accurate, however. Mr Mugabe’s appointment is largely due to the African Union’s rotational chairman system, and reveals a western media bias and need to magnify the issue.

Image courtesy of Malcolm Moore, ©2008, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Malcolm Moore, ©2008, some rights reserved.

Mr Mugabe, who rode to power in 1980 on a strongly anti-colonial platform, emphasised a need to ‘reclaim’ Africa from European imperialist forces and white minority rule in what was then known as Rhodesia. In a newly christened Zimbabwe, his revolutionary ideology coupled with centrist practices earned him broad popular support in his first decade and a half in power. Mr Mugabe’s early Zimbabwe was considered a model of reconciliation, though one that began to fray at the edges by the mid-1990s. While some see Mr Mugabe as the ultimate African nationalist and a symbol of black power, others see him as ‘a despot responsible for gross human rights abuses’ after destroying Zimbabwe’s agricultural economy in the wake of disastrous land reform policies, repeated election fraud, intimidation of political dissenters, and the jailing and murder of his own people in an attempt to retain his hold on presidential power[1].

When doing a simple Google search on ‘Mugabe appointed African Union Chairman’, the first result that comes up is not anything to do with the position or its significance, but rather Mr Mugabe’s tumble down a flight of stairs during a public appearance. Mr Mugabe is a 90-year-old man, and while him falling down a flight of stairs might be considered amusing to some, its coverage distracts from the more serious news at hand.

The media rhetoric surrounding Mr Mugabe’s appointment has been overwhelmingly negative. An easy conclusion might be that the A.U. is wholly unserious about its legitimacy to have chosen such a leader. The 54-nation bloc is often said to be striving for increased international recognition, but appointing Mr Mugabe as their chairman is admittedly not the best signal of progress, or of its institutional values. Mr Mugabe’s anti-colonial rhetoric and slogan of ‘Africa for Africans’ is still echoed today, and his acceptance speech as Chairman touched upon this, and garnered a positive response:

“During my tenure as chair, I will deliberately provoke your thoughts to pay special attention to issues of infrastructure, value addition, agriculture and climate change”.[2]

Mr Mugabe’s promise of value addition is perhaps not the best move, since his land reforms of the early 21st century aimed at the reclamation and redistribution of white-owned farm land brought the country’s once robust agricultural sector to its knees, resulting in extraordinary food shortages and spiraling poverty. Zimbabwe experienced unprecedented hyperinflation, and in 2009 acted to adopt the dollar in order to stabilise its economy. Further, his note of increasing infrastructure rings as a tepid gesture, as infrastructure in Zimbabwe has crumbled under the corrupt hand of his ZANU PF party.

Mr Mugabe may be a relic of the ‘old Africa’; he is now the last of the old strong-man rulers, and at age 90 is still clearly relevant. He is seen as one of Africa’s most symbolic and divisive rulers and, according to leading human rights groups, has committed widespread violence and spread fear in order to stay in power. Mr Mugabe does not have a clean record, and Mr Mugabe’s appointment as Chair is in no way a move forward, rather it is a glance backward at what one would hope to be a closed chapter. His appointment signals bad news for human rights and development at first glance, and western media has pounced on this. The main buzzwords found in articles from The Guardian and Huffington Post was that his appointment was ‘expected to harm relations’ and would have ‘negative consequences’.

Though his chairmanship is just one year, Mr Mugabe appears to be setting out an agenda for his term. The president of Zimbabwe has spoken of implementing a long-term development programme, though what Mr Mugabe could realistically accomplish in one year is questionable, indeed it is quite possible that his term could result in more harm than good. The appointment of Mr Mugabe might simply have been tactical, as the president of Sudan was already passed up due to the crisis in Darfur, creating tension within the organisation. In light of this development, passing up on Mr Mugabe’s turn as chairman may have had far worse consequences than biting the bullet and letting him sit his one year. Continuing to bypass African leaders does not signal African solidarity, one of the main purposes of the organisation. In fact, Passing over Mr Mugabe may have been the better move from a Western perspective, but not so from within the Union.

As The Guardian has so aptly pointed out in an article published stating that the EU has now had to lift Mr Mugabe’s travel ban due to his new role as Chairman: “The role of rotating AU chairman is largely ceremonial.”[3] His appointment will realistically affect few leaders, or countries. The largest change is probably that Mr Mugabe will have greater and freer access to travel to West, but it is doubtful how much traveling he will do. Mr Mugabe clearly does not have the ruling record to be appointed Chairman, and what is concerning is that this signals that Mugabe is still getting away with his crimes of fear, fraud, human rights abuse and economic deprivation. If this opens the window for other African leaders to continue their human rights deprivations and stay in power, or rather gain more importance, larger issues persist. Robert Mugabe’s appointment is in no way a good thing, but it is also not as bad as western media sources present it to be, given its limited scope, revealing how fear mongering and pre-emptive the media has become.