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African Union chooses dictator Mugabe as new chair

Feb. 10, 2015

By: Dr. Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann

At the end of January 2015 Robert Mugabe was appointed chair of the African Union (AU). Mugabe has been president of Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980. Although the honorary position of AU chair normally rotates among the heads of state of host countries of AU summits, there is a precedent not to abide by this rotation, as in 2005 when international concern over gross human rights violations in Darfur influenced the AU not to allocate the chair to Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.

Zimbabwe is one of the case studies in my current book project on State Food Crimes, so I have following politics there over the last few years. Mugabe is a brutal dictator who since 2000 has wreaked enormous havoc on his country. Zimbabwe does have elections and there is an opposition party, but Mugabe and his political party pretty much run the show. There’s been massive political violence, torture, rape and murder since 2000, the worst during the 2008 elections.

Mugabe has seriously undermined Zimbabwe’s food supply. White farmers – many Zimbabwean citizens – used to produce much of Zimbabwe’s food, but Mugabe decided in 2000 to forcibly evict them from their land. This caused a massive drop in food production, as well as a loss of export earnings, as Zimbabwe used to be the “breadbasket” for other countries in East Africa. The forcible closings of these farms meant that about 150,000 to 200,000 farm workers lost their jobs; if you add their dependents, about 1.5 to 2 million people were without support. The purpose of redistributing the land was supposed to be to resettle landless peasants, but Mugabe gave many of the farms to his relatives and cronies.

Also, in order to stop urban residents from voting for the opposition party, in 2005 Mugabe authorized “operation drive out trash” in which about 700,000 urban residents were driven out of their homes. Some of these people then migrated to newly discovered diamond fields, but Mugabe and his cronies took over the diamonds, expelling some of the small, independent diamond diggers and enslaving others.

Mugabe’s fellow heads of state in the AU know all this, but most of them don’t care. Naming Mugabe its chair is the latest is a series of AU acts defending Mugabe. In 2005, the AU resisted calls from the U.S. and Britain to criticize Operation Drive Out Trash. In 2006, it refused to make public a report critical of Zimbabwe’s human rights record, which had been prepared two years earlier by the AU Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

In May 2007, the African bloc at the UN successfully nominated Zimbabwe’s Environment Minister to chair the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, despite allegations that he had ruined a previously successful white-owned farm that had been given to him during land redistribution. In 2011 Zimbabwe assumed its turn as chair of the AU’s Peace and Security Council.

The uncritical attitude of the AU to Mugabe reflected other African leaders’ respect for his leadership in the anti-colonial struggle in Zimbabwe from 1965 to 1980, along with his support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. He was considered one of the “grand old men” of the African liberation movement. In 2002, then President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki claimed that attempts in the British Commonwealth (an organization of English-speaking states, many of which are former British colonies) to ostracize Mugabe were “inspired by notions of white supremacy.” In 2005, South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zulu argued that there was an “element of racism” against Mugabe, and that “the hullaballoo is about black people taking land from white people.”

Mugabe himself regularly attributed attempts to force him to change his policies to “white,” “Western,” or “imperialist” interference. At the UN World Food Summit in Rome in November 2009, he accused “certain countries whose interests stand opposed to our quest for the equity and justice of our land reforms,” claiming that these countries were neo-colonial powers who had imposed unilateral sanctions in order to undermine Zimbabwe’s land reforms and make it dependent on food imports.

Article 3, g of the Constitutive Act of the AU states that its objectives include “democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance.” This doesn’t seem to be what’s going on right now. Rather, African heads of state are rallying around Mugabe in a protective move. Many other heads of state in Africa are dictators who want to protect their own interests. Others are more concerned with scoring point against the West than protecting the human rights of ordinary Africans.

Many years ago I wrote a book about human rights in Africa. In it, I referred to the then Organization of African Unity (OAU), which preceded the formation of the AU, as an “organization for the protection of rights of heads of state” in Africa (Rhoda E. Howard,Human Rights in Commonwealth Africa, Rowman and Littlefield, 1986, p. 4). The principal purpose of the OAU seemed to be to preserve the power, wealth and privileges of the “big men” who had made it to the top in then newly independent Africa. Nearly 30 years later, it seems that is also the purpose of the AU.

This blog was originally posted at Dr. Howard-Hassmann’s personal blog, We are reposting it with her permission.

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