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

PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is in pole position to become the next leader of the 54-member African Union (AU), after securing the chairmanship of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) last week. Nothing bars him from simultaneously taking the helm of both while also running his troubled country.

The continent’s oldest president will turn 91 on February 21 and if, as is probable, he is chosen by fellow African heads of state early next year to become their leader for the next 12 months, his meticulously planned political comeback will be one of the most complete in modern history.

Still a liberation hero in parts of Africa, particularly the south, Mr Mugabe’s status as a pariah in many western countries and in human rights circles in Zimbabwe has only recently improved. He and his wife Grace are still under sanctions imposed by the US and European Union (EU).

He was not invited by President Barack Obama to this month’s inaugural US-Africa summit in Washington, for example. All that could change quite soon.

"He is the man to beat," says a senior AU official in Addis Ababa, asking not to be named. "We rotate the chairmanship between regions and next year is Southern Africa’s turn. Since President Mugabe has just taken over at Sadc, we can assume he will be the group’s candidate and that he will be chosen by his peers."

The near-unanimous respect for Mr Mugabe ended in the late 1990s and 2000s, mainly due to the confiscation of white-owned farms and violent repression of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Almost nobody familiar with the AU electoral process doubts Mr Mugabe is a virtually unassailable favourite for the post he previously held in 1997-98 when the AU was the OAU, or Organisation of African Unity. One exception is a European ambassador in a Southern African capital, who says: "I don’t think Africa will allow that to happen; it will be a massive own goal."

Everything suggests much of Africa backs him to the hilt. The 15 Sadc members, including SA, unanimously selected him at their summit in Victoria Falls, setting the stage for him to succeed Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, one of the AU’s lowest-profile chairmen for some years.

"This is a way of honouring President Mugabe and his record," says Kaire Mbuende, a Namibian and a former Sadc executive secretary, when asked about the reasons for choosing someone so controversial to be the face of Africa in its political interactions. "Zimbabwe has everything it takes to rise from the ashes. It has the human capacity — the only questions are about time and resources," he says.

Other analysts warn against attaching too much significance to the individual president who leads an organisation for just one year.

"That AU chair position is very ill-defined," says Adekeye Adebajo, executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town. He predicts Mr Mugabe will not prevent Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, head of the AU Commission, its executive branch, from doing her work effectively. "But it is a coup for him diplomatically and he will use it to legitimise himself," says Dr Adebajo, an expert on African institutions. As AU chairman, Mr Mugabe’s right to attend a host of international summits will be hard to refuse.

Donors led by the EU provide 60% of Sadc’s budget of $88m a year and an even bigger share of the AU’s much larger budget. Yet donors are unwilling to use European taxpayers’ money to impose their political will.

Mr Mugabe’s African roles could be a welcome break from domestic troubles, with the economy showing no sign of recovery. With the opposition all but neutered, the real headaches may come from inside Zanu (PF) amid intense jockeying for the succession.

Vice-President Joice Mujuru is constitutionally Mr Mugabe’s successor but that could change at next December’s elective conference of the ruling party where her main challenger, Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, may have to show his hand.

Adding to the bubbling brew, Grace Mugabe was elected head of the Zanu (PF) women’s league this month, and her description of herself as a political novice will not cut much ice with the main contenders.