Robert Mugabe and the African Union’s conflict policy

President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe. Photo courtesy www.forbes.com
President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe.
Photo courtesy www.forbes.com

By Sandile Lukhele

African leaders agreed to allow Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to become AU Chairman. Mugabe’s appointment could have profound implications if African leaders disregard national and international laws to engage in armed actions or suppress human rights, as the AU chairman is all but guaranteed not to respond during his tenure in the AU’s highest executive position.

Zimbabwe’s President-for-Life, Robert Mugabe, who at 91 cannot expect to be making 10- or even 5-year policy plans for his administration, on 30 January 2015 assumed the chairmanship of the 54-member state African Union (AU). The chairmanship rotates amongst Africa’s five regions. Mugabe replaced Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz at the body’s annual meeting held at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The African leaders could have passed over the controversial president whose chairmanship complicates AU affairs. The election did not have to be fait accompli.

In 2007, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, the Butcher of Darfur, was passed over and Ghana’s John Kufuor was elected when Chad threatened to pull out of the AU if Bashir was chairman. However, Bashir had no significant allies amongst his fellow African heads of state, while Mugabe, through 35 years of relentless self-promotion had cast himself as the true heir of Africa’s anti-colonial liberation movement and ipso facto senior statesman for Africa. He is feared amongst African leadership because he is willing to trade on his popularity with Africa’s poor and resentful masses to blackmail other leaders into agreeing with his policies, or at least into not publicly criticising him, lest he label them stooges of the West to the displeasure of their constituents. At the AU’s Addis Ababa confab, Mugabe did not congratulate Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta for having had crimes against humanity charges against him thrown out of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in December 2014 for lack of evidence. Rather, Mugabe criticised Kenyatta for dealing with the ICC at all. That Kenya had a treaty obligation to honour with the ICC, and that Kenyatta’s cronies managed to withhold the very evidence needed to prosecute their boss, did not impress Mugabe, even though the latter’s strategy was the type of Machiavellian trickery that Mugabe might be expected to applaud. Mugabe, who has successfully side-stepped serious allegations regarding his role in the murder of 20,000 Matabele tribespeople opponents in the 1980s, finds international tribunals that prosecute war criminals anathema. This is the dilemma that the AU, which was founded ostensibly in Rule of Law, has with its new chairman, for whom Rule of Leader is paramount.

This article is extracted from the March 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential +/-85 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

Rule of Leader versus Rule of Law

Mugabe’s political party in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriot Front (Zanu-PF), praised the new AU chairman with the type of fulsome accolades of which propagandists are fond: “His universal endorsement by the African leadership is ample evidence that despite the West’s negative view of President Robert Mugabe, Africa completely and absolutely adores him and will forever cherish his heroic deeds,” said Zanu-PF party spokesman Simon Khaya Moyo.

However, adoration is an emotion not actually displayed by African leaders toward Mugabe. There is appreciation for the longevity of this most senior President-for-Life, and even some vicarious pleasure at Mugabe’s truculent anti-Westernism. Western leaders and their nations have too often subjected Africa to arrogance and discrimination that deserves rebuking. However, most African leaders seem resigned toward Mugabe; an acknowledgement that he is not leaving the continental stage but by his own terms, like Castro in Latin America, and in the meantime the wait must be endured until mortality’s curtain inevitably falls. Of course, most African leaders have no more intention of ever departing office than does Mugabe. Few have the bona fides to criticise Mugabe’s anti-democratic tendencies. South Africa, which could, does not. Pretoria sees no harm in giving Mugabe what he wants. One troubling consequence of the African National Congress (ANC) government’s support of its former ally in the liberation movement is its inaction against violence perpetrated against Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa, whom Mugabe feels are traitors for fleeing destitution and oppression in Zimbabwe.

The new AU chairman’s attitude toward the ICC testifies to his position on Rule of Law. To Mugabe, what constitutes the law depends on his policies at any given time. Whatever may be in the statute books or signed treaties are irrelevant if they conflict with his goals. Most African leaders agree with this position. Laws cannot be enforced without supportive leadership and law enforcers. However, in Africa law enforcement is withheld when this serves the interest of national leaders, from Cairo, where government’s crusade against Islamic political opponents is more improvisational than statutory, to Cape Town, where 700 charges of fraud and corruption against Jacob Zuma were dropped by a government controlled by his political party prior to 2009 polling which elected Zuma to his first term as South Africa’s president.

Mugabe’s reign as AU chairman may be more ceremonial than substantive because at his age, he is not going to mount a zealous programme of new policies or have the energy to coerce other countries’ support. However, symbolism is important in politics and important amongst Africans. Critics of the AU tend to dismiss the body as an ineffective talk shop where leaders gather to flatter one another amid luxurious surroundings far removed from the poverty and misery of their nations’ peoples. However, the AU does send real troops into harm’s way on peacekeeping missions in Central and Eastern Africa. The AU does deal with substantive transcontinental matters from commerce and communications to governance and security; and the AU does seek to challenge the World Bank with a New Development Bank of its own, and challenge the ICC with an African Court. The body and its chairman cannot be said to be meaningless or powerless.

The rivalry between rule by Big Men and the Rule of Law is Africa’s foremost dynamic, politically and culturally. Mugabe embodies the former. His African supporters acknowledge the strength of the Big Man’s role in African culture, though many Africans increasingly strive toward democracies in which democratically-constituted laws have the final say. South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, Nelson Mandela, could have been an archetypal Big Man, but his vision for Africa embraced the entirety of the African people and not just himself. In the modern world, the will of the people is paramount. To the dictator, he alone is paramount, and he is the literal embodiment of the state. To him, his nation’s people are like a mob of extras in a motion picture, which remain in the background where on cue they cheer his guarded public appearances but are otherwise silent and docile.

That Mugabe is not Mandela is a result of personalities but also history. Mugabe practices the politics of revenge against his former enemies. Mandela was charitable toward his adversaries and promoted inclusionary policies. However, Mugabe fought in a liberation army in a war that was bloody, prolonged and socially corrosive, against enemies who were descendants of a colonial adventurer who not only made the Zimbabwean people his vassals but had the temerity to name their land after himself. Other than sporadic acts of violence, the ANC during South Africa’s apartheid era was less a terror group than victims of state terror. Mugabe conquered through bloodshed, while Mandela conquered by enduring inhumane treatment while garnering international support and waiting for the historical moment, the end of the Cold War, that concluded the West’s need for South Africa as an anti-Communist ally. The ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), never engaged the South African army in battle. Also, apartheid’s last president, F.W. de Klerk, was a gentleman who earned the Nobel Peace Prize, while Mugabe’s rival, Rhodesian President Ian Smith, is commonly regarded by historians today as truculent and bigoted.

The Washington-based Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal released its 2015 Index of Economic Freedom (IEF) the week that Mugabe ascended to the AU chairmanship, and ranked Zimbabwe last amongst 46 Sub-Saharan African nations. The report noted:

Zimbabwe remains one of the world’s least free economies. President Robert Mugabe’s government is corrupt and inefficient. The labour market is one of the most restricted in the world, and business licensing forces most workers to seek employment in the informal sector. The violent seizure of land has underscored poor government land reform policies and upset investor confidence in a once-vibrant agricultural sector.

Businesses rely on courts to enforce contracts, settle disputes and allow commerce to function. The IEF report noted, “Pressure from the executive branch has substantially eroded judicial independence.” This is significant for Africa because of the attitude Mugabe brings to the AU’s highest executive position. His is a viewpoint that, as mentioned, is shared by many other African leaders, that courts exist to enforce the policies of government leadership. When journalists at the AU meet asked Mugabe for his opinion regarding the parole in South Africa of a notorious apartheid government hit-man, Eugene de Kock, the AU chairman seemed resigned that South Africa tends to be a stickler for “legalisms.” South African editor Peter Fabricius noted, “Clearly the Rule of Law like some of the other fundamental values of the AU is for others, seemed to be the implication.”

In response to another journalist’s question, Mugabe said he would not use his position as AU chairman to plead for the release of journalists who have been consigned to jail cells throughout Africa by governments who feel journalism’s mandate to uncover the truth is, at best, impertinence, and at worst, treason. Yet, press freedom is one of the foundations of the AU to which all member states once made a show of supporting and, legally at least, are still bound to uphold.

Aside from unanswered questions regarding Mugabe’s involvement in the killings of 20,000 Matebele persons, the use of violence has characterised his regime. A case in point being the use of government thugs to injure and kill white minority farmers. The cruelty Mugabe displays towards gay Zimbabweans, demonising this group to distract from his government’s failures, is similar to his tactic of blaming the collapse of Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector not on anti-farmer policies, but on a drought. Intolerance used by leaders as a political tool continues to stoke conflicts from tribal warfare to genocide throughout Africa, and a leader who employs this tactic is at odds with the unifying themes espoused by the AU.

Mugabe has long practiced a policy of confiscating property in the name of the Zimbabwean people, though in actuality the policy benefits his cronies, as revenge against former colonialists and political opponents. Considering such policy sacrosanct, Mugabe cannot be expected to have the AU intervene when other African leaders persecute minorities within their societies. To Mugabe, this is what the law is intended to do, to sanction leadership policies. During a closed-door session at the AU meeting, which was made open through the tweet postings of several participants, Mugabe spoke about the African Court to delegates. The new AU chairman said in all seriousness that it would be ideal if “bitch whites” became defendants.

Should the African Court be constituted like the Zimbabwean courts under the AU chairman, in other words, if rule by the Big Man’s wishes supersede the Rule of Law, then the undemocratic majority of Africa’s leaders will find an agreeable judicial venue to endorse any conflicts they initiate and to rule in their favour over their victims.

An apparent anti-West gesture made with a wink and crossed fingers

African leaders calculated that it would be much too difficult to cross Mugabe by withholding from him the AU chairmanship. It was simply easier to allow the normal procedure of rotation to play itself out while assuring the West through diplomatic back-channels that Mugabe will be harmless at the helm of the AU. Zanu-PF stalwarts were busy with massive damage control when their leader fell to the ground disembarking his jet at Harare airport in what was intended to be a triumphant return from the AU meeting. However, African diplomats must have been privately relieved by this demonstration that the most probable preoccupation for the nonagenarian Mugabe is keeping himself upright. The West also did not apply pressure for a Mugabe alternative, so used by now are London and Washington to Mugabe’s bluff and bluster.

Mugabe cannot travel to represent the AU in Western and some other capitals where AU interests must be pursued. He is subject to a travel ban to such places. African leaders took this into account when they allowed his chairmanship, and discounted the danger that some opportunity would be lost because of an absent AU leader at a trade conference. Ultimately, the West is dealing with the AU and not an individual who holds the AU.

However, Africa’s national leaders will be keeping their fingers crossed that their AU chairman will not make any embarrassments. He is not leader of Africa, only of Zimbabwe, a nation whose impoverishment under his rule is one of the continent’s great post-colonial set-backs. As AU chairman, Mugabe cannot make policy or send troops. Those decisions require a membership vote.

This article is extracted from the March 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential +/-85 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

What the AU Chairmanship says about the AU

African nations are involved with the West in terms of trade, aid and cultural infatuations from American rap music to Japanese consumer goods; and due to declining trade with Zimbabwe they interact less with Harare. China’s largesse is shrinking, and with it the last profligate sponsor willing to bankroll an anti-Western surrogate in Mugabe. About 2.2 million Zimbabweans required food aid in 2014; the country that used to be Southern Africa’s bread basket now exports economic refugees. Zimbabwe’s leader is in no position to present his nation as an example for Africa to follow, as he once did. Mugabe’s attempts to be an anti-Colonial Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, have floundered on the reality that the confiscated goods of white farmers and foreign-owned businesses are being handed to Harare’s political elite. The argument that Western extraction of Africa’s raw products vacuums away the treasures of the continent while leaving nothing but short-term sales instead of long-term economy-building investment is valid and serious. However, to be credible, this injustice must be championed by others and not Mugabe, who soils even valid arguments with vitriol.

That the AU allowed the Mugabe chairmanship was a political act on behalf of Africa’s leadership. While the decision may be presented as being of no long-lasting harm, the disconnect between the views and policies of the new chairman with the philosophy and constitution of the AU are a gulf that cannot be bridged by suggestions that it is all harmless politics at work. While African leaders may not all prescribe to Mugabe’s prejudices and bellicosity, their unanimous acquiescence to his AU ascendency amounts to an endorsement, with profound implications for the unfolding of Africa’s conflicts during Mugabe’s term in the AU’s highest executive position. If African leaders disregard national and international laws to engage in armed actions or suppress human rights, the AU chairman will not respond. Only if a fellow African leader is challenged by an uprising or a coup d’état will the AU chairman intervene, on behalf of the former.


(1) Sandile Lukhele is an analyst for ACM and author of political and social commentary for African and international publications.