Robert Mugabe, in his acceptance speech following his appointment as chair of the African Union (AU), said: “African resources should belong to Africa and to no one else, except to those we invite as friends. Friends we shall have, yes, but imperialists and colonialists no more.” This proclamation was met with applause from his peers. The news, predictably, was not as well received among Western commentators. The polarization of African and Western commentators on the Zimbabwean president’s appointment was nothing new: if anything, it was well in-line with the traditional lack of trust between the two regions. Africa’s general distrust of Western intentions and the credibility of Western attempts to improve the conditions of the continent garnered support for Mugabe’s customary anti-West rhetoric, while Western suspicions of the integrity of Africa’s leaders naturally leads to animosity towards one of the most overtly anti-West African leaders. More interesting is a possible – and longstanding – solution to this divide, raised by Mugabe in his acceptance speech: pan-Africanism.
Mugabe, of course, is not considered a hero everywhere. He and his wife are subject to restrictions on their travel and finances in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe, and his country is similarly shackled by economic sanctions. Domestically, Mugabe has faced opposition for his autocratic and often violent tendencies, as well as the country’s past economic turmoil. Much of the criticism stems from the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In response to Mugabe’s appointment as the AU chair, an MDC spokesman said: “Mugabe has trashed democracy in Zimbabwe and he and his party have ruined the economy. He lacks the political legitimacy to lead an Africa that should be looking to consolidate democracy and good governance.” How can a man accused of “[lacking] the political legitimacy to lead” Africa be hailed as a pan-African icon?
Autocratic leadership, in fact, is typical of pan-Africanist liberation leaders. Thomas Sankara, the legendary pan-African martyr-president of Burkina Faso, banned unions and free press, established kangaroo courts in towns and workplaces to try corrupt officials, counter-revolutionaries and lazy workers based on personal grudges, and dismissed the entire nation’s school teachers when they went on strike. Ahmed Sékou Touré ruled Guinea as a one-party state, imprisoning, torturing and killing many political opponents and dissidents in camps such as the infamous Camp Boiro. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah banned opposition parties and trade union strikes, suspended due process with the Preventative Detention Act, and declared himself president for life. The reigns of these rulers often saw the use of violence to achieve their means: Sankara encouraged gangs of armed youth to terrorize citizens, and some 50,000 people are estimated to have been killed under Touré. All of these leaders believed so strongly in the inviolability of their ideals for a post-colonial, truly independent, and self-sufficient Africa that they believed no one else could be allowed to interfere.
Like Mugabe, these leaders were not immune to criticism, both internal and external. Autocratic and oppressive rule always creates resistance and retaliation. In the case of mid-century pan-African freedom fighters, rebellion was almost always sponsored, often even directly planned and initiated by Western nations, particularly former colonial powers. In 2002, Belgium apologized for its role in the death of Patrice Lumumba, who had also been the subject of a CIA murder conspiracy. Thomas Sankara was assassinated for jeopardizing relations between Côte d’Ivoire and France in a plot that has been suspected to involve the US. The man who seized power, Blaise Compaoré, is to this day France’s closest ally in the region. Mugabe has become famous for his anti-West rhetoric, particularly in regards to Britain and its involvement with sanctions against him and his politics. Is it exactly this anti-West narrative that has cemented Uncle Bob’s continuing role as the chief of pan-Africanism?
As much as pan-Africanism aims to move beyond the shackles of colonial rule, it can also be one of the few unifying pan-African forces: “It is a rare shared experience on a gigantic continent with thousands of languages and unique ethnic groups, where governments range from kingdoms to multiparty democracies to Islamic states. If nothing else, they can all trace their very borders to the decisions of European colonialists.” Britain’s government – former colonizers of Zimbabwe and much of Africa – has learned to be careful with its comments on its former colony: Mugabe is an expert at exploiting foreign criticism of his regime. Mugabe’s distrust of Britain has led to controversy before, such as his opening of a British diplomatic bag. However, Western powers have also been reprimanded in the past for overstepping the boundaries of sovereignty.
Mugabe is already the last of his kind. He is Africa’s oldest leader and its third-longest serving head of state. The reverence given to him can, in many ways, be seen as symbolic of his historical pan-African role rather than endorsement of his relevance to modern African politics, just as his appointment as the chair of the AU – a position with very little political power – can be seen as ceremonial by some. While Mugabe was careful in his acceptance speech to frame his land redistribution policies as Africa’s agricultural answer, do his anti-colonial politics still have a place in the pan-African movement going forward? Land reform has not necessarily been as cataclysmic as it has been portrayed, but it is not the solve-all solution Mugabe wants it to be. Africa’s resources and economies are as diverse as its people. Africa will need a new banner to unite behind if it is truly to become self-reliant. The continent needs to escape its patron-client relationship with the West to move forward, but exactly how this will occur is up for debate. Uncle Bob, in the meantime, will retain his magisterial seat of honor, for all it may mean.