If you accept Africa, you can’t only pick the part of it that is represented by Desmond Tutu and reject Mugabe as being alien to the continent.
Uncle Bob is new AU honcho: ‘Mugabe may be a son of a bitch, but he’s Africa’s son of a bitch’
IF YOU don’t understand the “Mugabe phenomenon”, then you don’t – and probably never will – understand Africa. As it is, African leaders gathered in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa Friday elected Zimbabwe’s controversial and brass-knuckled 90-year-old President Robert Mugabe to the 54-member African Union’s rotating chair.
Immediately, and not without justification, critics sounded the sirens, saying the choice risks tarnishing the organisation’s reputation. Mugabe, or “Uncle Bob” as he is more popularly known on the African street by his admirers and, ironically, critics has a toxic reputation outside the continent, and is subject to travel bans from both the United States and European Union, in place since 2002 in protest at political violence and intimidation at home.
Mugabe, a former guerrilla leader who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, has a long history of crushing opponents to ensure his Zanu PF party won every election for more than three decades.
Several African diplomats are also uneasy.
“It’s not a very encouraging sign,” sighed one African diplomat, who asked not to be identified, to AFP. “The Mugabe style belongs to a past generation, the one that takes power hostage, and this is no longer the AU creed.”
But Erastus Mwencha, the deputy of the AU Commission, defended the right to choose any leader.
“Who am I to say to the people, you have elected the wrong leader?” Mwencha said. “The people have chosen: the important thing is that you must follow the constitution of your country.”
Although the post of AU chair is largely symbolic (except in the hands of shrewd leaders who can make a lot out of it), civil rights groups are worried as to the image it will give to the organisation.
“This will send mixed signals and an extremely awkward message on international levels on how the AU stands on principles of democracy and good governance,” said Jeggan Gey-Johnson, spokesman of the pan-African civil society coalition, The AU We Want.Advertisement
It is not the first time a Big Man is taking the AU’s top post.
“There is a trend that has been going for several years of leaders chosen to represent the AU at the highest level who don’t espouse the core principles of the organisation,” Gey-Johnson added.
Mugabe succeeded Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, another African despot. Aziz became the North African country’s president in 2009 after leading two coups in four years. In 2007, the AU was deeply divided over the candidacy of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, while civil war raged in the western region of Darfur. Ghana’s John Kuffour, a more conventional liberal democratic type of leader, finally took the post.
Civil society groups also objected when the eccentric Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi—who heavily bankrolled the AU—took the post in 2009, and in 2011 when Equatorial Guinea’s autocratic Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Africa’s second longest serving leader, was named.
In the corridors of AU headquarters, diplomats say the choice of Mugabe is an “unfortunate accident” resulting from the tradition of rotating the post among Africa’s regions. But Mugabe also has much support from many African leaders, who view with deep respect the former liberation war hero, the continent’s third-longest serving leader. Elsewhere in Africa, many also like his searing anti-western rhetoric.
However, “Uncle Bob” is not an aberration. Even if the AU chair were not rotational, meaning the luck of the draw must inevitably fall to a despot along the way, it would still struggle to find conventional democratic presidents to lead it.
Fear of brand contamination
They are not many, for sure, but this shortage is not the reason few would be available. Leaders who more closely fit the classical definition of democracy typically don’t engage with the AU much, perhaps the best example being Botswana’s Ian Khama who rarely even bothers to attend its meetings.
It is because reasonably democratic, prosperous nations in Africa with low levels of corruption seem to be embarrassed to be too closely with Africa itself, and the AU. Probably they fear it will contaminate their brand.
For if truth be told, though Africa has made a lot of progress across the board in the last decade, it is still saddled with a negative global image, and the episodes of massacres (South Sudan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Central African Republic, Libya), and disease (the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa) still keep alive some of the worst stereotypes of the past. It perhaps explains why the better-governed island states generally keep the AU at arm’s length.
Grappling with Africa
In fact critics say that it goes further – once South African statesman Nelson Mandela became a global icon, he seemed to become “less African” and met mostly and travelled to events in the west. So do international figures like former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who choose to live outside the continent.
It is a criticism based on a misconception of what function leaders like Mugabe serve. There are, increasingly, many people who see only an Africa “rising” and the technology innovations coming out of innovation hubs in cities like Nairobi, and prefer to talk up only that glamorous side of the continent today.
Then there are those who point to the wars, poverty, and Ebola to make the argument that the view of a gradually prospering continent with a growing middle class is delusional, a spurious spike in good fortune, and soon Africa will descend into the hell it has always been.
In reality, the two are one and the same thing. Years of adversity have bred resilience, produced a new movement to improve things, and many problems to provide solutions for. The wars in South Sudan or CAR, horrible as they are, are still a useful warning against complacency. They ensure that wise people remain alive to the fragility of the continent.
Thus, to many, if you really accept Africa and want to do business with it, you can’t only pick the part of it that is represented by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. You have to see Mugabe as being part of it – and either learn to live with him, find a way around him, or soil your hands in the effort to remove him.
Our son of a bitch
Thus while Mugabe has his enemies and fans, he is also a very recognisable figure to many Africans – he is like the obnoxious uncle or aunt whom you can’t stand, but still have to invite to the family wedding. Just that they will not sit at the front row in church or the wedding reception. You stick them somewhere in the back. The social shame of not inviting them would be too much.
In politics, it is a familiar story. Anastasio Somoza Garcia was president of Nicaragua from 1937 to 1947 and from 1950 to 1956. He was a brutal dictator, who started a dynasty that lorded it over Nicaragua for 44 years. However, he was a staunch ally of the US because he was also rabidly anti-communist. In 1939 US president Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly remarked that “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
An entry in Wikipedia on this famous quote, however notes researchers and archivists who have scoured the archives of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library have found no evidence that Roosevelt ever made this statement, and other scholars have attributed it to a variety of American presidential administrations in regard to foreign dictators – and some to Somoza himself who made it up as a propaganda line.
Mainstream Africa seems to have more or less the same attitude toward Mugabe: He maybe a son of a bitch, but he’s Africa’s son a bitch.