Why We Shouldn’t Really Care that Robert Mugabe is the New Chair of the African Union

Robert Mugabe, the perennial Zimbabwean head of state, has been appointed chairman of the African Union during the AU summit on Friday. As the continent continues to face a series of difficult challenges, the selection of Mugabe as the new chairperson has caused consternation. Indeed, the 90-year-old Mugabe embodies some of the very issues which have stunted African development and growth. Under his (decades-long) leadership of Zimbabwe, Mugabe has tightly controlled the reins of power, silenced the opposition, and has been heavily criticized for his poor human rights record. So, shouldn’t we be collectively dismayed at Robert Mugabe’s appointment as AU Chairman?

Turns out, not really.

Asked whether he was concerned about what the West might think of his appointment at a press conference following the announcement, Mugabe quipped “What the West will say or do is not my business”. He said he planned to focus on the issues at hand – infrastructure, agriculture, climate change – and seemed unconcerned about what the international reaction to his chairmanship might be. In the context of African progress and development, it does appear deplorable to have a vehemently anti-democratic leader at the helm of the African Union. But Mugabe’s appointment is not a game-changing event. In all likelihood, Mugabe’s chairmanship of the AU will have little practical impact on the work of the organization.

The AU chairman role is a rotating, one-year position, which is elected by the members of the Assembly of Heads of State. This role is primarily a ceremonial one, and the AU chairperson’s main functions are to chair the biannual meetings of the Assembly, and represent the organization internationally. While he may use this new role as an opportunity to climb on his soapbox and advocate his views,  Mugabe will not have any real power to do anything that would fundamentally change how the AU works, what it focuses on, and its day-to-day operations.

Indeed, the bulk of the work of the AU happens at the level of the Commission, and its eight portfolios (including Peace & Security, Political Affairs, Trade & Industry, etc). The AU Commission manages the day-to-day operations of the organization, sets strategy, and develops and implements programs. The commission is where the real action happens at the AU, and it remains in good hands. The current AU Commissioner, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was elected by member states last year and is pretty much the polar opposite of Mugabe.  She is the first woman to hold this important post and is known for her integrity and acumen. Prior to her appointment, she held several cabinet positions in South Africa under Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, where she earned a reputation as a  “nuts and bolts” politician, who gets things done.

Previously, Lybia’s Qaddafi and Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang – two of the continent’s least democratic leaders – have held the AU chairmanship. Their ability to influence the AU’s institutional agenda was just as limited as Mugabe’s.

While choosing Mugabe as the AU chairman is an unfortunate choice at best, the AU’s ability to move forward with its agenda will not be hampered, particularly because it has strong political leadership in the person of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma .