AFRICAN leaders are expected on Friday to elect President Robert Mugabe 54-member African Union’s rotating chair, a choice critics say risks tarnishing the organisation’s reputation.
Mugabe, who aged 91 is Africa’s oldest leader, is widely expected to be anointed as successor to Mauritania’s president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz at the start of the two-day AU summit meeting in the Ethiopian capital.
But the veteran president has a different reputation outside the continent, and is subject to travel bans from both the United States and European Union, in place since 2002 in protest at political violence and intimidation.
Mugabe, a former guerrilla leader who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, is accused of crushing opponents to ensure his Zanu-PF party won every election for more than three decades.
‘It’s not a very encouraging sign’
Last year Mugabe boycotted an EU-Africa Summit in Brussels after he was given a rare invitation – but his wife was still denied a visa.
But several African diplomats are also uneasy.
“It’s not a very encouraging sign,” sighed one African diplomat, who asked not to be identified. “The Mugabe style belongs to a past generation, the one that takes power hostage, and this is no longer the AU creed.”
AU Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who heads the executive branch that directs day-to-day work – launched the summit earlier this week highlighting “democracy, good governance and human rights” as core goals of the bloc.
But her deputy Erastus Mwencha, has defended the right to choose any leader.
“Who am I to say to the people, you have elected the wrong leader?” Mwencha said.
“The people have chosen: the important thing is that you must follow the constitution of your country.”
Although the post of AU chair is largely symbolic, civil rights groups are worried as to the image it will give to the organisation.
“This will send mixed signals and an extremely awkward message on international levels on how the AU stands on principles of democracy and good governance,” said Jeggan Gey-Johnson, spokesperson of the pan-African civil society coalition, The AU We Want.
It is not the first time an autocratic leader would take the AU’s top post.
“There is a trend that has been going for several years of leaders chosen to represent the AU at the highest level who don’t espouse the core principles of the organisation,” Gey-Johnson added.
The previous chair, Mauritania’s Abdel Aziz, became the north African country’s president in 2009 after leading two coups in four years.
In the corridors of AU headquarters, diplomats say the choice of Mugabe is an “unfortunate accident” resulting from the tradition of rotating the post among Africa’s regions.
Previous controversial choices
The AU has faced previous controversial choices before.
In 2007, the AU was deeply divided over the candidacy of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, while civil war raged in the western region of Darfur.
Ghana’s John Kufor finally took the post, on the grounds that the country was celebrating 50 years of independence.
Some civil society groups also objected when Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi – who heavily bankrolled the AU – took the post in 2009, and in 2011 when Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Africa’s second longest serving leader, was named.
But Mugabe has also much support from many African leaders, who view with deep respect the former liberation war hero, the continent’s third-longest serving leader.
“The AU did not contest his election in 2013,” said Solomon Dersso of the Institute for Security Studies, an African think tank.
“Mugabe is a legitimate president, and if his people accepted his election, the AU has no reason to have a problem with his election.”AFP