Mugabe bobs and weaves to AU post

30 January 2015 - 02:27 By AFP

African leaders are expected today to elect Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to the 54-member African Union's rotating chair, a choice critics say risks tarnishing the organisation's reputation.

Mugabe, 90, is Africa's oldest leader and is expected to be anointed to succeed Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz at the start of a two-day AU summit meeting in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

But Mugabe has a different reputation outside the continent, and is subject to travel bans from the US and EU, in place since 2002 in protest at political violence and intimidation.

He 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.

"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, spokesman of the pan-African civil society coalition, The AU We Want.

It will not be the first time an autocratic leader has assumed the AU's top post.

The previous chair, Mauritania's 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.

The AU has faced 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 his country was celebrating 50 years of independence.