It is doubtful that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will send a message of congratulations to the recently appointed chairman of the African Union (AU), Robert Mugabe. But the EU executive has “taken note” of the choice of the controversial leader by African heads of state and government.
90-year-old Mugabe, one of Africa’s most divisive figures, assumed the rotating chairmanship of the AU on Friday, casting a shadow over the organisation’s relations with the West.
The only leader Zimbabwe has known since it gained independence from Britain in 1980 assumed the largely ceremonial role when he was handed the AU flag and gavel at a summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Asked by EurActiv if Juncker would congratulate Mugabe, and if the election was not a setback for EU-Africa relations, the Commission’s deputy spokesperson Mina Andreeva said no message had been sent at this stage, and hinted that if at all, a statement could be made at lower level.
The EU takes note of this appointment, which follows the procedures of the African Union, said Catherine Ray, spokesperson for foreign affairs.
The EU can only take note of this election, she explained. The AU Presidency is chosen on a rotating basis, and this year it was southern Africa’s turn, the region in which Zimbabwe is located.
In 2014, the 4th EU-Africa Summit concluded that the implementation of the Joint Strategy during 2014-2017 should focus on the following five priority areas, which by the way include “Democracy, Governance and Human Rights”. The other areas are “Peace and Security”, “Human Development”, “Sustainable and Inclusive Developmental Growth and Continental Integration” and “Global and Emerging Issues.”
Strictly speaking, Juncker’s counterpart at the African Union Commission is its Chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.
Council President Donald Tusk doesn’t have plans to send a congratulations message either, EurActiv was told. But in fact, as the President of the African Union changes every year, there is no practice of sending congratulations messages, Tusk spokesperson Preben Aamann said.
In some corners, Mugabe is feted as a nationalist hero who triumphed over colonial power Britain on the battlefield and at the ballot box, and who remained steadfast in his commitment to the promotion of black African power in the 34 years since independence.
“Zimbabwe is an important member state, a very committed country,” Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra told Reuters on the sidelines of the Addis summit that elected Mugabe.
In other corners, however, he is seen as a despotic pariah responsible for human rights abuses, rigged elections and turning one of Africa’s most promising nations into a basket case.
“Mugabe has trashed democracy in Zimbabwe, and he and his party have ruined the economy,” said Obert Gutu, a spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the Zimbabwean capital Harare, as quoted by Reuters.
It is a view shared in the European Union and United States, which imposed travel and financial sanctions on Mugabe and his acolytes after election victories over the MDC in 2002 and 2008, marred by violence and charges of vote-rigging and intimidation.
Mugabe denies any wrongdoing.
Asked if Mugabe could be allowed to travel to the EU, Catherine Ray said that although he remains on the travel ban list, Mugabe could attend meetings held on European territory in his capacity as AU chairman.
“Member states may grant exemptions from the measures imposed […] where travel is justified on the grounds of urgent humanitarian need, or in exceptional cases on grounds of attending intergovernmental meetings and those promoted or hosted by the EU, where a political dialogue is conducted that directly promotes the policy objectives of restrictive measures, including democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe,” Ray said.
Asked if the same would apply for his wife, who is also on the travel ban list, Ray said she would need to check.
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth says it’s disappointing that the African Union has chosen Mugabe as its new chairman. Roth called President Robert Mugabe autocratic. In a tweet, he said that it was disappointing that the AU couldn’t find a more appropriate chairman.
Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder, who sits on the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, commented the announcement that Mugabe will be able to comel to the EU in his new capacity in spite of the travel ban imposed on him :
"We cannot allow this appointment to weaken the push for political reform in Zimbabwe. The EU must continue to put human rights centre-stage in its dialogue with African countries."
The African Union (AU), the successor of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), was created in 2002 and currently has 54 member states.
It is Africa's leading continental institution and principal organisation in the area of peace and security. Its main objectives are to achieve unity and solidarity on the continent, achieve political and economic integration, promote peace and security, democratic principles and institutions, as well as sustainable development.
The AU is based in Addis Ababa.
He is on a EU sanctions list banned from travel to the EU. But the ban will be lifted when he will be travelling in his African Union chairman capacity.
- Eyewitness News: Mugabe a ‘disappointing choice as African Union chair’
- Deutsche Welle: Opinion: The African Union is making progress - despite Mugabe's selection
- Times, South Africa: Mugabe officially appointed African Union chairman
- The Guardian: Robert Mugabe assumes African Union helm with familiar rallying cry