The African Union Gets a Backward Leader

02/02/2015 02:42 pm ET | Updated Apr 01, 2015

Robert Mugabe continues to destroy Zimbabwe, and now he's got a bigger sandbox to play in. The oldest (he is now 90) and longest serving leader in Africa has taken the helm of the African Union (AU), as well as the leadership of the Southern African Development Community. He will pilot the AU for the next year.

Those 12 months are critically important period for the continent. Many African states will hold elections this year, offering a broad opportunity to consolidate democratic traditions and institutions. Threats abound, as well: with severe political and security challenges present in states such as the Central African Republic, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Somalia.

How can a man who has employed the most notorious and egregious election violence (2000, 2002, 2005, and 2008) in the modern African era be trusted with heading a body (the AU) charged with election observation for the entire continent? Mugabe even recently admitted that his political opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai received 73 percent of the vote in 2008. Yet Mugabe unleashed a bloody campaign that resulted in hundreds dead and thousands mutilated and beaten. Ultimately these tactics coerced formation of a fragile "unity" government that allowed Mugabe to stay in power.

On issues of governance, rule of law, and fiscal management, Robert Mugabe has compiled a 30-year track record that is dismal at best. One can only shudder at the thought of how he would lead the African Union. Western diplomats claim the leadership position is only ceremonial, but they should know better.

Ultimately, Mugabe's status has been elevated and now he can speak from the pulpit of the largest member-state organization in Africa. Mugabe's ascension as the star of the AU will only empower other authoritarian regimes to crack down further on their own people and undermine good governance elsewhere in the continent.

Liberalizing, pro-democracy leaders are working desperately to change the narrative and the reality on the ground in Africa, to draw in foreign investment and lift their people out of poverty through greater economic opportunity. Now, Robert Mugabe is in a position to undermine the progress that has been made.

He will also undermine the global stature and influence of the African Union. He can't represent the organization on the global stage like other leaders could, because he is banned from traveling to the capitals of Europe and the United States. Mugabe's own financial relations with China have also soured over the past couple as a result of poor economic management.

Mugabe is certainly not the first dictatorial leader to serve as AU chairperson. Libya's Muammar Gaddafi held the post in 2009, as did Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema in 2011. But for African leaders hoping to project a new set of leaders and a 'rising' Africa (just watch some of the most recent 2015 World Economic Forum Davos Summit speeches), Mugabe is the last person they should wish to see positioned as the voice of the continent.

In Mugabe's inaugural AU address, he spoke about taking advantage of "Africa's mineral wealth and agricultural potential, and guard against exploitation by foreigners." Yet Mugabe's track record of upholding property rights and rule of law is abysmal, and his political apparatus in Zimbabwe continues to destroy what little private sector remains and to promote subversive economic policies - such as his economy-pulverizing indigenization policy.

Foreign investors are intensely concerned about the liquidity crisis in Zimbabwe, and the International Monetary Fund has warned about low reserves, a large current account deficit and weak banks. Zimbabwe is not a pretty picture, and the leader who drove into the ground what was once one of Africa's most advanced and productive countries now gets to lead the AU with its 54 member states.

Many African leaders claim they want to move forward into the modern globalized economy. But Robert Mugabe is a relic of the past. Having him direct the show at the AU will help no one, particularly those leaders fighting to reform the violent and entrenched systems that keep the vast majority of Africans in poverty and despair. Given Mugabe's track record in Zimbabwe, there's a real possibility that Africa as a whole will regress during his tenure as AU Chairman.