The applause and standing ovation following his speech best summed up the nostalgic atmosphere in the hall. It was almost as though there was a yearning for that sort of radical leadership characteristic of the anti-colonial struggle as defined by the Nkrumahs, Nyereres, Toures and Ben Bellas of old.
Many of the delegates wanted to hear some radical words and statements. They also wanted to be entertained. And President Mugabe provided both with relative ease. Even though it made United Nations (UN) secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, squirm in his seat.
The peculiarity of the outgoing AU chairman’s statements, concerning reforming the UN Security Council to include African permanent seats, and calls for the freedom of Palestine, was not so much that these issues haven’t been said before. Instead, it was the general impression that they could rouse both mirth and applause, not just for the way in which they were said, but also for the person who was saying them.
President Mugabe represents the last of a generation of African leaders who participated or led the struggle for independence in their respective countries. Some by way of war, others through negotiated independence settlements or a combination of both. So, on the one hand, he was always going to get applauded at the summit as a sign of respect accorded to the liberation generation.
On the other hand, the standing ovation could have also been a tacit acknowledgement that perhaps this was President Mugabe and his generation’s last representation at that highest of levels, that is, as AU chair. And that President Mugabe chose the occasion to say, as bluntly as he is known to, some of those things that other heads of state and government cannot say publicly or with such disregard for diplomatic opprobrium.
But more significant is the fact that apart from disagreeing with the Zimbabwean president’s domestic policies and track record, a number of African leaders do feel hard done by the West. From issues to do with term limits through to a lack of promised financial support during lean times and anger over misunderstanding what exactly liberal interventionism means, the gripes are many. Every other African leader has a bone to chew with the global superpowers. Especially former colonial powers or those closely related to them such as the United States of America.
And in order to make sense of the contemporary relations that the continent or their respective countries have with global power, African leaders feel comfortable reverting to anti-colonial historical perspectives. Hence Mugabe looms larger than life for them. And not as a positive example of how to stand up to the West, but more as a way of showing the worst that could happen to Western interests and values in their countries and by default, on the continent, in the event of major disagreements.
The problem with this approach is that Africa will continue to fall into the trap of denying complicity in its own negative state of affairs. In the process the continent ceases to define its own agenda beyond the availed purse of the western and eastern donor governments that fund the AU and its member states.
So perhaps there is an urgent need to examine the character of the leadership that we have on the continent.
Whereas the liberation struggle generation had no choice, even in the most difficult of circumstances, to fight for freedom, the post liberation generation of leaders have struggled to define a collective agenda that will still capture the hearts and minds of Africans in similar ways to that of the anti-colonial era.
Where the likes of Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo, Abdoulaye Wade and Abdel Aziz Bouteflika led the process of changing the Organization of African Unity (OAU) into the AU, the pragmatic approach they took borrowed too heavily in terms structure and approach from the European Union. In this, the AU became more pragmatic and better organized but regrettably still suffered, as it does now, from performance legitimacy challenges. Especially where it concerns ordinary Africans who, while supporting the existence of a continental body such as the AU, do not always see its organic relevance to their continental identity and livelihoods.
There is undoubtedly a need to work towards a sense of collective belonging on the continent. The AU remains the best vehicle to do this in relation to democracy, solidarity, peace, security and economic prosperity. It however requires leaders that share a similar consciousness in a manner similar to those that founded the OAU. We almost had these leaders in Mbeki, Wade, Obasanjo and Bouteflika in the post liberation period. But they too fell short because of their inability to bring in other leaders with similar consciousness to continue and finish off what they had started.
Hence, we still have those that fought the liberation struggle, few as they remain, and with one of them still a serving president, getting standing ovations 53 years later.