Worry Over New African Union's Chairman, Robert Mugabe

14 February, 2015

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe won praise last month when he stood before the African Union and accepted its chairmanship. Mr. Mugabe is Africa's third longest serving leader. Critics have described his rule as dictatorial. They say he is a poor choice for the chairmanship if the African Union wants the world's respect. But other observers say he is unlikely to do anything to hurt the group.

The African Union works hard to present itself as an organization that works in a calm and collective way.

Yet Robert Mugabe is seen as someone who often expresses strong opinions. The 90-year-old president has publicly criticized European nations, calling them "colonizers and imperialists." Several Western nations announced travel bans and ordered sanctions against Mr. Mugabe. The measures were meant to punish him for suspected cheating in elections, repressing the opposition and human rights abuses.

Worry Over New African Union's Chairman, Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, right, arrives for the African Union leaders meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia last month.

His appointment as AU chairman shocked some governments around the world. But several African states have accepted the appointment without expressing concern. This month, for example, South Africa's foreign minister said the nation has "no qualms" about the choice.

AU office largely technical

Dimpho Motsamai is with the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa's administrative capital, Pretoria. She says Mr. Mugabe's appointment is largely technical. The position of chairman moves back and forth among Africa's four major areas.

Ms. Motsamai says the job has limited power. In fact, the head of the AU Commission has more power than the chairman. The Commission is the permanent administrative and policy engine of the AU.

Other opinionated leaders have held the chairmanship. In 2009, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi held the position. He had hoped to form a "United States of Africa." But, he had no success with that. He also lost his campaign to extend his term as AU chair beyond the one year limit.

Dimpho Motsamai says Mr. Mugabe is unlikely to go against the commission. She says he is also unlikely to deal with complex issues, like African leaders attempting to amend national laws to extend their terms.

She says Mr. Mugabe probably will not speak out on abuses of democracy. She says he already has failed to do so in his job as chairman of the Southern African Development Community. But she says he will make public statements in support of AU opinions and decisions.

Is Mugabe a risk?

Mr. Mugabe's critics say he is a poor choice for the job of representing African unity, however. Joy Mabenge works for the Zimbabwe in Crisis Coalition in South Africa. He says Mr. Mugabe is old and has shown signs of memory problems. Mr. Mabenge says there is a danger that the Zimbabwean leader may say or do something that could cause an international incident.

Mr. Mugabe's AU chairmanship acceptance speech called into question his mental health. The 25-minute speech dealt with many problems Africa faces, including terrorism and the spread of Ebola. But there was also some aggressive language about "colonialists and imperalists."

Mr. Mabenge says that is the kind of talk he worries about. Mr. Mugabe is to serve as chairman for 12 months. It is sure to be an interesting year.

I'm Caty Weaver.

Anita Powell reported this story from Johannesburg, South Africa. Caty Weaver wrote it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

imperialistn. a powerful country or group of countries that attempts to change or influence the way people live in other, poorer countries

sanctionn. an action that is taken or an order that is given to force a country to obey international laws by limiting or stopping trade with that country, by not permitting economic aid for that country, etc.

qualmn. a feeling of doubt or uncertainty about whether you are doing the right thing

unityn. the state of being in full agreement

memoryn. the power or process of remembering what has been learned