Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Mugabe, Term as African Union Chief Could Salvage a Tarnished Legacy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Mugabe, Term as African Union Chief Could Salvage a Tarnished Legacy

Article excerpt

When Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe took the helm of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1997, he did so as a leading statesman -- the venerable revolutionary who had guided one of Africa's most triumphant post-colonial success stories. That year, his country boasted the fastest-growing economy on the continent, with surplus-producing farmland and national parks packed with tourists.

Almost two decades later, as Mr. Mugabe takes the chairmanship of the African Union, the OAU's successor as Africa's governing body, the 90-year-old leader presides over one of the continent's frailest states, blighted by more than a decade of violent land reclamation, hyperinflation, and Western sanctions.

Experts say his fiery anti-Western rhetoric and radical politics are unlikely to have a significant policy impact during his year- long stint. But for Mugabe himself, the largely ceremonial job could offer a major international soapbox from which to shape a deeply tarnished legacy.

"Here is a man who, in the 1990s, was revered by the world, but then became a tragic figure not only for Zimbabwe but for the entire continent," says Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, a Zimbabwean historian and social scientist at the University of South Africa. "To have this platform again gives him a chance at the end of his life to try and redeem his legacy as a pan-Africanist and a revolutionary."

Mugabe will not wield executive power over the AU, a job that rests squarely on the shoulders of chair of the African Union Commission (AUC), the South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Rather, he will represent the AU in global forums and chair its summits.

"He can do everything in his power to vilify the West, but the truth is it will barely affect the technical or pragmatic aspects of those partnerships [between African and Western countries]," says Dimpho Motsamai, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. "There's quite a strong understanding in the global community that leaders in ceremonial posts like this do not speak on behalf of their entire region or continent. Mugabe's rhetoric is his own."

The OAU that Mugabe chaired in 1997 and 1998 faced a much different African landscape. Rwanda was still dealing with the consequences of its genocide, and Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army were relentlessly abducting child soldiers in Uganda. AIDS was an unmanageable epidemic and civil wars were percolating in Somalia, Liberia, the two Congos - one of which was still called Zaire - Sierra Leone, and Angola.

Some things still remain the same - as seen in the Congo Republic and Somalia - but much has changed: Ebola is now the new deathly virus, "Africa rising" describes the continent's economic potential, South Sudan is a new addition, and the threat of Islamic radicalization threatens the east (Al Shabab) and west (Boko Haram). …

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