Age has not slowed Robert Mugabe down. If anything, the opposite is true: the Zimbabwean president is at the peak of his powers, and revelling in his new role as African Union chairperson. If only he would use his political prowess for the good rather than evil. By SIMON ALLISON.
So far, Robert Mugabe seems to be enjoying his 90s. The nonagenarian’s latest triumph came on Friday in Addis Ababa, where a jury of his peers – otherwise known as the African Union – elected him as chairman of the august continental institution, a position to which the veteran Zimbabwean president has long aspired.
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.
A smug and secure Mugabe addressed this issue in his first public comments after his appointment. “What the West will say or do is not my business,” he said at a press conference in Addis Ababa. “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,” he said.
“For more than 10 years I have been under sanctions, my country has been sanctions. If they want to continue it’s up to them but these sanctions are wrong. 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 added.
The sanctions may or may not be wrong, but the West must surely acknowledge now that they have failed – miserably. If the intention of sanctions was to remove him from office, or even to moderate his regime, then Mugabe’s elevation to the highest office on the continent – even if it is a largely ceremonial role – shows just how toothless those sanctions really are.
Over the last 18 months or so, Mugabe has fought off all challengers to tighten his control over his party, his country and now his continent. He is at the peak of his powers, and shows no sign of slowing down.
Which is why, perhaps, he seems to be able to get away with outrageous statements like this one, also made at that Addis Ababa press conference, on the role of women in society. “We are different,” he told reporters. “There are certain things men can do and that women can’t do. And there are things women can do that men cannot do. You can’t bear babies in your tummy, can you? Even the gay ones cannot.”
“But what we have done in Zimbabwe is that our women can become ministers, judges, farmers, pilots. We have three pilots,” he concluded, as if three whole pilots is tangible proof of female empowerment.
For outside observers, it seems remarkable that an organisation like the AU, supposedly committed to values such as democracy, economic development and human right – 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.
Yet it should come as no surprise. The AU does operate as a democracy of sorts, with each member state given an equal vote; the problem is that too many of its member states are still presided over by men of Mugabe’s ilk, men who have a vested interest in validating Mugabe’s authoritarianism. That the old dictator’s club should elect another dictator is just a function of its composition.
This is not enough reason to dismiss the AU entirely, however. Within its constraints, the organisation is still taking the lead when it comes to peace and security issues on the continent, and is pushing hard on several initiatives to speed up development.
The most significant decision reached at last week’s summit was the creation of a Multinational Joint Task Force to combat Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and Cameroon. The force will be composed of 7,500 soldiers from Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, which is a serious upgrade in terms of troop numbers from the force of the same name which operated in the area before. Crucially, Nigeria seems to have agreed that it can’t defeat Boko Haram on its own.
“The scourge of terrorism and all its attendant evils threatens all our gains achieved since 1963,” said Mugabe. “In the coming year we therefore should deliberate and find lasting solutions to the scourge of terrorism, the loss of innocent [life] and the destruction of property inflicted by terrorists recently in Cameroon and Nigeria.”
It is a worthy goal, a necessary goal, and let’s hope that Mugabe can turn the full focus of his undoubted political genius on making it happen. If he can deliver on this, then maybe we can forget the hypocrisy of his appointment. DM
Photo: Robert Mugabe (R), the President of Zimbabwe and the newly-elected Chairman of the African Union, prepares for a speech at the 24th Ordinary Session of the African Union Summit, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 31 January 2015. EPA/SOLAN KOLLI