President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is in prime position to become the next leader of the 54-member African Union, after securing the chairmanship of the Southern African Development Community last week. Nothing bars Mugabe from simultaneously taking the helm of both, while also running his troubled country.
The continent’s oldest president will turn 91 on Feb. 21 and if, as is probable, he is chosen by fellow African heads of state early next year to become their leader for the next 12 months, his meticulously planned political comeback will be one of the most complete in modern history.
Still a liberation hero in parts of Africa, particularly the south, Mugabe’s status as a pariah in many Western countries and in human rights circles in Zimbabwe has only recently improved. He and his wife Grace are still under sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the European Union.
He was not invited by President Barack Obama to this month’s inaugural U.S. – Africa summit in Washington, for example. But all that could change quite soon.
“He is the man to beat,” says a senior African Union official in Addis Ababa, asking not to be named. “We rotate the chairmanship between regions and next year is Southern Africa’s turn. Since President Mugabe has just taken over at Sadc, we can assume he will be the group’s candidate and that he will be chosen by his peers.”
The near-unanimous respect for Mugabe ended in the late 1990s and 2000s, mainly due to the confiscation of white-owned farms and violent repression of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Almost no one familiar with the AU electoral process doubts Mugabe is a virtually unassailable favorite for the post he previously held in 1997-98 when the AU was the OAU, or Organization of African Unity. One exception is a European ambassador in a Southern African capital, who says: “I don’t think Africa will allow that to happen; it will be a massive own goal.”
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