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Zimbabwe’s President Makes His Mark on African Politics at AU Summit

  • Anita Powell

Zimbabwe president, and chair of the African Unity Summit, Robert Mugabe, addresses delegates at the end of the 25th AU Summit in Johannesburg, June 15, 2015.

Zimbabwe president, and chair of the African Unity Summit, Robert Mugabe, addresses delegates at the end of the 25th AU Summit in Johannesburg, June 15, 2015.

Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe is leaving an indelible stamp on the African Union (AU) as he serves as its rotating chairman. At the end of the continental body's 25th summit, he showed that yet again. In one rambling, hour-long, seemingly continuous sentence, he spoke about everything from his childhood raising cattle to his feelings about journalists, to his sentiments about women's place in society — as well as his thoughts on international politics.

Women’s empowerment

Robert Mugabe can always be relied on to say something interesting, especially at the twice-yearly summits held by the African Union. This year he was free with his thoughts on the summit’s biggest issues. They included women’s empowerment, the political crisis in Burundi and the controversy over African nations’ membership in the International Criminal Court, which he has long disagreed with.

Mugabe began his rhetorical tour de force with a bang at the summit’s opening ceremony, hitting the women’s empowerment theme by launching into a lengthy treatise on how all human beings have mothers. He has previously said that he does not think women can be equal to men.

But despite the rhetoric, his feelings on women are less than straightforward.

“By the way of elections, they don’t fare well, and people will want numbers in parliament. Then of course there is the issue of the husbands also. They may not want their wives to stand in parliament and leave them at home. But affirmative action, I think, is necessary,” he said.

That drew a sidelong glance from the seasoned politician sitting next to him, AU chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the ex-wife of current South African president Jacob Zuma.

Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (L) smiles as she is greeted by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe next to South Africa's president Jacob Zuma ahead of the 25th African Union summit in Johannesburg, June 14, 2015.

Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (L) smiles as she is greeted by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe next to South Africa's president Jacob Zuma ahead of the 25th African Union summit in Johannesburg, June 14, 2015.

ICC and al-Bashir case

Mugabe then spoke about his well-known contempt for the International Criminal Court. That issue was vaulted into the spotlight at this summit when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir defied an arrest warrant from the court to travel to South Africa, which would have been obliged as a court member to arrest him. South Africa insisted that Bashir enjoyed diplomatic immunity as an AU summit participant.

Mugabe also poked fun at the current political crisis gripping central Africa — the insistence of Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third presidential term, rationalizing that will only count as his second term because parliament chose him the first time. Mugabe himself has ruled his nation since 1980.

Some critics of Zimbabwe's leader say he is not on top of his game, and that at the age of 91 he should finally retire. But Mugabe, who struggled to not fall asleep mid-sentence during his 1 a.m. soliloquy at the end of the summit, was quick to dispute that — and blamed journalists for depicting him negatively.

Blaming journalists

“Your pens are quite dangerous," he said. "The other day, I think we were having a press conference like this one. And as I was going down the steps, I missed the last step and fell. Ho ho ho ho! It was international news! As I say, I used to fall many times looking after cattle, my grandfather’s cattle, and so on in the bush, you’d knock against, you know, stones and things like that and fall and you get up again. What’s strange in a person falling? But ho ho, it’s the old president Mugabe, now you see, we have said this man is now useless. He is lost, He too old now. That’s why he must resign. You know, of course they want the papers to sell so we don’t arrest people for saying so, but we just say, ‘Why can’t you be truthful?’”

As he made his exit from the stage, he paused, hovering a foot tantalizingly over the stairs.

"Do you want me to fall here?" he asked the gathered media swarm.

He did not.

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