PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe’s leadership of the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) has exposed how much the nonagenarian, once regarded as one of Africa’s statesmen, has lost respect and stature among the continent’s leaders.
His tenure as Sadc chair comes to an end on Monday, but his leadership has hardly been plain sailing, let alone remarkable.
Hopes by his inner circle and admirers that he would have a dramatic tenure and leave a lasting legacy on the continent were largely dashed because of the age gap and contrasting viewpoints between him and the younger breed of African leaders.
The most striking rebuff of Mugabe (91) occurred when he went to West Africa in May to attend Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s inauguration in Abuja, only to be later denied entry into the Ivory Coast where he was supposed to officiate at an African Development Bank (AfDB) meeting’s closing ceremony.
Mugabe left Nigeria a bitter man, after he was not only stripped of his security protection leaving him vulnerable to pressure and harassment by the country’s journalists, but was also denied salutation as an elderly African statesman and current AU chairperson.
Despite being harassed by Sahara Television journalists, which incident went viral, government officials say Mugabe was particularly angered by what he perceived as political and diplomatic hostility towards him by Nigerians. He believed the hosts were “ignoring, overlooking or deliberately refusing” to recognise him as the AU chairperson.
He was so angry that he stormed out of Nigeria to nearby Equatorial Guinea, where he was accommodated by his good friend Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
Mugabe engaged Buhari over the matter when they met at the AU summit in South Africa in June in an effort to resolve the fallout.
But the most embarrassing episode for Mugabe was the decision by Ivory Coast authorities to deny him permission to land in the country where he was due to give a speech at an AfDB meeting attended by finance ministers from the continent.
Mugabe was invited by the bank to address the meeting during the official opening ceremony, but failed to do so because he was attending Buhari’s inauguration. While in Nigeria officials from the bank asked him to make a statement at the closing ceremony instead.
Mugabe said Ivory Coast officials communicated that Ouattara was ill and in bed and could therefore not host him or allow his aircraft to land. Mugabe however believes Ouattara was influenced by France.
Mugabe failed in his bid to influence African countries to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), moreso after attempts by South African civil society organisations to have Sudan President Omar al-Bashir arrested and handed over to the ICC while he was attending an AU summit in South Africa in June.
The AU chairman played a role in ensuring that al-Bashir flew out of South Africa, in defiance of the country’s High Court order which banned him from leaving the country until an application calling for his arrest had been heard, resulting in questions being asked about the continent and South Africa’s commitment to the rule of law.
Mugabe however got much support from a number of African leaders who believe the ICC has been pursuing African leaders while ignoring “war crimes” by Western countries such as the US and Britain. Some African leaders also believe the AU should have its own court.
Al Bashir has been a polarising figure in Africa. In 2012, then Malawi president Joyce Banda barred Al Bashir from attending the AU summit in her country resulting in the summit being moved to Ethiopia.
Mugabe, who is in his seventh term despite Zimbabwe’s economic collapse, failed to deal with third-termism in Africa and shocked delegates during the AU summit when he suggested there should not be term limits arguing two terms could feel as short as two weeks.
“It is a democracy, if people want a leader to continue, let him continue,” he said.
Mugabe was, however, very vocal on African issues particularly in relation to resource ownership and exploitation for the benefit of indigenous persons.
He also tried to attend as many AU meetings as possible, at the expense of Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy, many feel.
Mugabe has failed to have influence in conflict zones such as Sudan, the Central Africa Republic and Nigeria where Boko Haram insurgents continue carrying out bloody attacks.
His reign started on a bad note with South African President Jacob Zuma and then Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba refusing to sign the Protocol on Trade in Service despite Mugabe putting pressure on them during a closed door meeting of a summit in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. An angry Mugabe then blasted Zuma at a press conference saying he should co-operate with other regional leaders instead of seeking to turn the region into a market for South African products.
During the summit, Botswana President Ian Khama skipped the official opening ceremony where Mugabe took over the Sadc chairship. Khama, diplomats said, felt Mugabe was not an exemplary leader and was against the regional body appointing someone who had given the region headaches over many years, the most recent being elections won in July 2013 amid systematic rigging claims.
The summit was held under the theme “Sadc Strategy for Economic Transformation — Leveraging the Region’s Diverse Resources for Sustainable Economic and Social Development Through Beneficiation and Value-addition”, which echoes the government’s economic blue-print, ZimAsset.
Ironically, Mugabe was championing regional economic growth at a time his country is going through massive de-industrialisation which has resulted in company closures and massive retrenchments.
As Sadc and AU chair, he was ambiguous on xenophobia which rocked South Africa. He will be remembered for apologising to Zuma for Zimbabweans flooding his country and disrupting the country’s social structure.
Although he tried to tackle Zuma on xenophobia during a Sadc industrialisation meeting in Harare, he was crushed by the South African President and Khama, who insisted that regional governments were also to blame for failing to provide opportunities for their people.
Mugabe subsequently blasted Zuma at a press conference in his absence.
True to form, Mugabe was very involved in events in the region where he also attended presidential inauguration ceremonies in Namibia, Zambia and Mozambique. He toured the Sadc headquarters in Botswana and showed interest in solving the crisis in Lesotho, although South Africa played a pivotal role as chair of the Sadc Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation.