PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe’s election last week as first deputy chair of the African Union (AU) may well be a significant diplomatic victory for his Zanu PF government after many years of isolation due to governance failures, signalling a gradual but continuous process of rehabilitating a leader who was once treated at home and abroad like a political leper.
Yet there are lingering questions about whether such symbolic gestures will fully rehabilitate Mugabe and restore his international image. During the early years of his rule in the 1980s, Mugabe hogged the domestic and international limelight as a symbol of reconciliation and hope.
Then Mugabe received a series of accolades including honorary degrees and prizes from around the world for things such as “significant contributions” to relations between Britain and Zimbabwe, “extraordinary intellectual discipline and energy” and “qualities of statesmanship which made him one of the great figures of modern Africa” despite growing signs of authoritarian rule and human rights abuses.
In 1988, he got the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger because his government’s agricultural programmess “pointed the way not only for Zimbabwe, but for the entire African continent”.
That was well before he launched his land reforms in 2000 which contributed to his fallout with Western leaders and their countries — his erstwhile allies — and the beginning of systematic repression and human rights abuses even though signs had been there as shown by the 1980s killings of civilians in the south-western region during an internal low-intensity civil strife.
The University of Massachusetts in 1986 also awarded Mugabe an honorary degree, saying: “Your gentle firmness in the face of anger, and your intellectual approach to matters which inflame the emotions of others, are hallmarks of your quiet integrity. We salute you for your enduring and effective translation of a moral ethic into a strong, popular voice for freedom.”
However, in 2008 the same university cancelled the honour. It said “Mugabe’s corrupt, repressive regime” was deemed “antithetical to the values and beliefs of the University of Massachusetts”. It was the first time the board has revoked an honorary degree.
In 1994, Mugabe was appointed an honorary Knight Grand Cross in the Order of the Bath by Queen Elizabeth II. This entitled him to use the post-nominal letters GCB, but not to use the title “Sir”.
However, in the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee called for the removal of this honour in 2003, and in 2008, the Queen cancelled and annulled the honorary knighthood after advice from the foreign secretary, saying: “This action has been taken as a mark of revulsion at the abuse of human rights and abject disregard for the democratic process in Zimbabwe over which President Mugabe has presided.”
Cancelling its prize in 2001, The Hunger Project said: “The Hunger Project wishes to be on the record as deploring policies that have resulted in increased unemployment, poverty and hunger in Zimbabwe. This situation is inconsistent with the spirit of the Africa Prize for Leadership and Zimbabwe’s need to work for the sustainable end of hunger.”
Mugabe pushed his regime into isolation and made Zimbabwe a pariah state at the height of repression and economic meltdown, inviting fierce criticism locally and internationally.
The European Union (EU), United States and other countries slapped Mugabe and his cronies with sanctions. Although the sanctions restricted Zimbabwe from getting funding from certain international institutions and lines of credit, the country still traded with others in the world.
However, after the inclusive government and last year’s general elections, Mugabe has been slowly emerging out of isolation.
His election to the five-member Bureau of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union last week marked part of the rehabilitation process. According to Foreign Affairs minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, the move will force the EU to climb down from its hard-line stance of ostracising Zimbabwe.
Analysts say the EU might further relax sanctions on Mugabe and his associates when it soon reviews the measures sometime this month and allow Mugabe to attend the AU-EU summit in Brussels in April, particularly because the AU Executive Council has taken a decision which will be tabled for adoption that the EU can only determine its delegation and has no right to dictate to Africa which heads of state should attend.
University of Zimbabwe lecturer Charity Manyeruke says Mugabe’s appointment to the AU structure should be seen in the context of Africa waking up to the need to reclaim its identity and assert itself.
“Africa is rekindling its identity and he was appointed to that position because he is a true African icon, a true pan-Africanist,” Manyeruke said in an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent.
Another political analyst Godwin Phiri said Mugabe’s appointment to both the AU and Sadc where he is deputy chairman shows he is now coming out of isolation.
“AU and Sadc are in essence rehabilitating Mugabe after his controversial election victory last year,” said Phiri.
However, Mugabe’s rehabilitation raises fundamental questions about the direction the region and the continent are taking, especially on democracy, human rights and governance issues.
“The appointment (of Mugabe to AU and Sadc top posts) demonstrates that these regional bodies are failures and are clueless in terms of the direction they want to take Africa,” said political analyst Alexander Rusero.
“This is the same Mugabe who refused to implement the Sadc election guidelines that would have resolved Zimbabwe’s long-standing governance issues that earned the country pariah status and also led to economic decline. There is no way that the continental body will be able to sanction errant members and what it therefore means is that the continent will continue to be plagued by governance issues.”
After the bloody June 2008 presidential poll run-off, the AU and Sadc forced Mugabe into a coalition arrangement with the MDC formations — the Government of National Unity — to ensure conditions created for the holding of credible elections while the socio-economic outlook stabilised.
To its credit, in all its summits on Zimbabwe starting with Kinshasa, DRC, in 2009 to Maputo, Mozambique, in June 2013, Sadc consistently pushed for the implementation of electoral, security sector and media reforms deemed critical for a credible election, but lacked a clear mechanism to force Mugabe to comply.
In fact, in Maputo, just a month before the elections, Sadc “endorsed recommendations which include, among others, media reforms, upholding the rule of law, the role of the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee, the general elections date, validity of electoral regulations and deployment of Sadc observers”.
Apart from governance concerns, Phiri said that the appointment of Mugabe, less than two weeks shy of his 90th birthday on February 21, does not augur well for the continent seeking to project an image of renewal, progress and hope.
Analysts say it may well be that rehabilitating Mugabe might help Zimbabwe to emerge from isolation, but it is inconceivable how he will take the region and continent forward given his old age and an image damaged beyond repair.