Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Picture: REUTERS
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Picture: REUTERS

ZIMBABWEAN President Robert Mugabe has achieved a stunning diplomatic comeback, after Southern African leaders hailed his re-election and selected him as the next chairman of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc).

At a weekend summit in Lilongwe, Mr Mugabe was elected deputy chairman of the 15-nation Sadc for the next year, meaning he will host the next summit in Harare in August 2014 and, at the age of 90, automatically succeed Malawi’s Joyce Banda, whose one-year term began on Sunday night.

Sadc’s outgoing executive secretary, Tomaz Salomao, said there was nothing surprising about Mr Mugabe’s election to succeed Mr Banda next year.

"There is an alphabetical roster for the chairmanship, according to a country’s name," he told Business Day on Monday.

The formula to explain the jump from M for Malawi to Z for Zimbabwe, scaling many other member states, was not immediately clear.

In the space of less than three weeks, Mr Mugabe’s political fortunes have been transformed. Against many predictions, Africa’s oldest leader crushed opposition challenger Morgan Tsvangirai in the July 31 presidential elections, winning another five-year term after 33 years in office.

His Zanu (PF) party also trounced Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in parliamentary polls, gaining a two-thirds majority and therefore the ability to change Zimbabwe’s constitution.

Mr Mugabe will be sworn in for his seventh term on Thursday.

"Summit congratulated the Zanu (PF) party and President Robert G Mugabe for winning the harmonised elections," the Sadc leaders said in their communiqué.

President Jacob Zuma was one of nine heads of state or government who took part in the summit.

Mr Mugabe’s triumph at the summit came despite — or perhaps because of — the limited sanctions that the European Union (EU) and the US imposed on him a decade ago over human rights abuses and poor governance.

Zimbabwe’s leader is regarded by many in Southern Africa as a liberation struggle hero who is almost above criticism, particularly by European countries.

An unanswered question, after Sadc’s ringing endorsement of both Zimbabwe’s elections and Mr Mugabe, was how the EU would respond to it.

The 28-member group said Sadc’s electoral assessment would guide its sanctions policy. There is no longer any doubt about the opinion of the region’s governments but Brussels had not commented by last night.

The US State Department said on Monday night the recent election was flawed and it did not plan to loosen sanctions against Mr Mugabe’s government until there were signs of change in the country.

The African Union (AU) was likely to share Sadc’s positive view. The AU Commission’s chairwoman, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, attended the Lilongwe summit.

AU and Sadc observers at the Zimbabwe elections described them as free and peaceful, but did not use the word "fair". European and North American observers were banned. The nongovernmental Zimbabwe Election Support Network, which deployed 7,000 domestic observers, was highly critical. Its preliminary statement cited a host of problems, including issues with the voters’ roll.

Zimbabwe’s state newspaper, The Herald, voiced its pleasure with the Sadc communiqué.