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).
In 2015, peacekeeping remains the AU's most visible role, though the organization entertains extensive ambitions to become a leading incubator of African innovation and development. For Mugabe, the role will have at least one significant practical consequence: On Feb. 3, the European Union announced that it would ease a travel ban imposed on the president in 2002, allowing him to travel to Europe “under his African Union chairmanship capacity.”
But as Ms. Motsamai notes, despite the fact that Mugabe had previously been barred from Europe, his appointment was hardly intended as a snub to the West. In fact, the chairmanship rotates annually among the continent’s five regions (north, east, west, central, and south). When southern Africa came up to bat, most of its members had just finished or were preparing for elections, leaving the Zimbabwean the most obvious choice. (South African President Jacob Zuma might have been a contender, if not for the fact that Ms. Dlamini-Zuma is his ex-wife). To top off his credentials, Mugabe was already chairman of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
But if there is little symbolism to Mugabe’s appointment to chair the AU, he himself still has a symbolic hold on much of the continent as a one-time revolutionary and fervent Africanist, says Aditi Lalbahadur, who researches SADC for the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).
“If there is one practical area Mugabe really has the authority to push for change [in the AU], it’s with respect to the organization’s economic self-sufficiency,” says Ms. Lalbahadur. Currently, African countries pay less than half of the organization’s budget, with the slack taken up by China, the European Union, and the United States. The AU’s gleaming headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was entirely bankrolled by the Chinese. But Mugabe, who has long championed an end to African reliance on aid, may be one of the few leaders with the moral authority to steer the AU toward paying more of its own bills, Lalbahadur notes.
“There’s a natural synergy there between what Mugabe says and the goals of the organization,” she says.
In fact, says Mr. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, to write off the Zimbabwean’s politics entirely is to miss what has allowed him to stay in power so long, even as his country all but collapsed around him.
“For his entire political career, he has never lost the ability to connect with genuine grievances people are feeling,” he says. “That’s been at the heart of his political survival."