By Staff Reporter ©AFP
The 90-year-old autocrat was handed the role on Friday at the start of a two-day AU summit in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. In his acceptance speech, Mr Mugabe referred to the need to guard against foreigners exploiting the continent’s mineral wealth and called for more assistance for African farmers.
The AU chairmanship rotates between regional blocs and came to Mr Mugabe as a result of his being outgoing chairman of the Southern African Development Community.
Although the position is largely ceremonial, it will give Mr Mugabe influence over issues debated at the 54-member bloc. It will also divide Africans, given the message it sends about the body’s commitment to democracy and good governance.
In some quarters Mr Mugabe is still feted as a nationalist hero who has been consistent in his commitment to black African power ever since he led Zimbabwe to independence from the UK in 1980. However, among a younger generation of activists and leaders he is viewed as a figure from the days when Africa was littered with despots.
The EU and US imposed travel and financial sanctions on Mr Mugabe and some of his allies as a result of rigging and violence in elections in 2002 and 2008.
Today they are more preoccupied with the spread of jihadist violence in west Africa and the upcoming elections in Nigeria — expected to be the closest and most divisive since the transition from military rule in 1999.
Although Mr Mugabe is low on the list of priorities as he sees out his final years in power, his one-year chairmanship could blunt the AU’s effectiveness.
They wouldn’t say it to his face, but even people in Mugabe’s own party — those he hasn’t purged — would want him to step from this into retirement– Stephen Chan, professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies
“Mugabe has no credibility with the west,” said a senior western official. “He hasn’t got that much in Africa either and where he does it’s with the ‘awkward squad’.
“So it could be a year of AU underachievement, at a difficult time for the continent.”
Some of his AU peers — weary of the debate surrounding Mr Mugabe’s prolonged rule — may hope that this is a valedictory role, allowing him a last stand in the spotlight.
“They would not say it to his face, but even people in Mugabe’s own party — those he hasn’t purged — would want him to step from this into retirement,” said Stephen Chan, professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies who has written extensively on Zimbabwe.
In Zimbabwe, there was some anger at the news.
Nelson Chamisa, MP for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said: “Questions of legitimacy, questions of good governance, questions of rule of law are outstanding and we have more questions than answers from the man who is now sitting on the chair.”
While the move “does dent the credibility and credentials of Africa”, Zimbabweans had bigger issues to worry about, notably their daily survival in a collapsing economy, he added.