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Mugabe's Appointment as AU's Ambassador Open to Debate - 2003-07-17

Zimbabwe's opposition says President Robert Mugabe's success at last week's African Union summit came as a surprise. He was named to a one-year term as the organization's ambassador to Southern Africa. The opposition, Movement for Democratic Change says President Mugabe is the wrong man for the job because he violates the principles of the pan-African organization. Nevertheless, some analysts disagree.

Critics say President Mugabe violates the AU charter, which calls for democracy and human rights. His government is under sanctions by Great Britain, the United States and the Commonwealth for, among other things, last year's disputed presidential elections.

Western observers say the voting results were marred by violence and electoral fraud. Also in dispute is President Mugabe's land redistribution program. It confiscated the land of over a thousand white commercial farmers without compensation. The land was handed over to landless blacks and scores of political allies, many without prior farming experience.

But President Mugabe's poor track record has not slowed his rise within African organizations.

Before being named as the AU's ambassador for Southern Africa, he was also the head of the defense committee of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This, despite the fact that Zimbabwe's security forces have been accused of human rights abuses.

President Mugabe said his election to the AU post shows that Africans have greater admiration for Zimbabwe than ever before. A spokesman for South African president Thabo Mbeki said there was nothing wrong with naming President Mugabe to the job, noting that the European Union also rotates its leaders among various posts.

Still, the move by the AU came as a surprise to Sekai Holland, the secretary for International Affairs for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Ms. Holland, who attended the AU summit in Maputo, says the AU may have rewarded President Mugabe with the post in exchange for his retirement next year from national politics.

"We hear he is stepping down [as head of his ruling ZANU-PF party] in December and then calling elections 12 weeks after that," she said. "But I do not think that will happen the Africans have given him this as a settlement, and they will get a shock when he does not step down and have elections in March. Mugabe has made these promises before and he has not stepped down, and he is not going to."

Others are not so harsh. Che Ajulu, a researcher at the African Institute of South Africa in Pretoria, says, "In every regional organization you always have a couple of leaders who go in the opposite direction. It would be easier to deal with Mugabe if he is still part of the system, once you let him loose as a loose canon causing trouble and no way to get him to the table, it will be harder to deal with him."

Mr. Ajulu favors the continuation of the so-called "quiet diplomacy" of President Mbeki. He says keeping President Mugabe engaged in African diplomacy has facilitated talks between Zimbabwe's ruling party and opposition MDC. Opposition officials deny any talks are taking place.

For some, AU support for the Zimbabwean leader is a show of resistance by African leaders to what they perceive as Western interference in African affairs.

"The African leaders are determined to put the message across that they are not going to be pushed around by the Bush administration or the West in general," said Gamal Nkrumah, foreign affairs editor for Egypt's Al-Ahram weekly, and also the son of Ghanaian independence leader Kwami Nkrumah. "They feel that in the case of Mugabe that other African leaders have equally bad records of human rights and good governance but the reason Robert Mugabe is singled out is because of the race question and the land question in Zimbabwe, because of European settlers of British stock. And [they believe] Western leaders turn a blind eye toward similar human rights violations in other African countries."

For Sekai Holland, the only reason the West is paying attention to Zimbabwe is because the Movement for Democratic Change does a good job of making itself heard.

"If you see a woman screaming with a husband beating you up who asks for help and then you see another woman hiding that she is being beaten, which one would you come to help first? Zimbabweans are people who are organized," she said. "This is why we are getting support."

Ms. Holland says the situation in Zimbabwe was, in her words, a hot topic at the Maputo summit, even though it was not officially on the agenda. She says a delegation from her party met with government officials, civil society and other political parties at the summit including representatives of Mozambique's ruling party, FRELIMO. She says she helped update them on the situation in Zimbabwe and on straightening out misconceptions about the country's opposition.

For example, she notes that the MDC and even white commercial farmers favor a conference to decide how to turn land over to black farmers in a fair and equitable way. She adds that she also explained to African nationalists that President Mugabe is not acting on their behalf.

"Mugabe has broken every rule of Pan Africanism," she said. "Pan Africanism is rejection of the use of violence because it is about having every one contributing toward a solution. But [instead], Mugabe is beating us up. The nationalist struggle is [also] about one-person one-vote. We got independence, but Mugabe has betrayed nationalists by depriving people who do not like him of the vote. He uses the militia from letting us go cast our vote."

Ms. Holland also points out that the Citizenship Act used by the government to disenfranchise whites from voting has also harmed African migrant workers who have lived in Zimbabwe for generations. The act forced anyone wishing to remain a citizen to repudiate dual citizenship from any other country. But many complain that other nations in southern Africa, as well as Great Britain, do not have a mechanism for repudiating citizenship.

"The Citizenship Act [disenfranchised] 2,000 whites and one-and-a-half million Zimbabwean [farm workers] with partial parentage from Mozambique, Malawi or Zambia. [They are] the strongest base of MDC," said Ms. Holland. "Followers of Pan Africanism talk about Africa without boundaries but we are kicking out one and a half million Africans from Zimbabwe to places their grandfathers left 75 years ago, who were [parented] by Zimbabweans."

Ms. Holland is confident the AU, under the chairmanship of Mozambican president Joachim Chissano, will help Zimbabwe's opposition find a fair and democratic solution to Zimbabwe's crisis. She says that she's impressed with Mozambique under his leadership adding that Maputo is growing middle and working classes. She says with the deterioration of the country under President Mugabe, it will likely take Zimbabwe decades to catch.