Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has been appointed the new chairman of the 54-nation African Union.
Friday’s announcement was made during the African Union’s two-day heads of state summit at the organisation’s headquarters in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
The 90-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled his country since 1980, succeeds Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
“During my tenure as chair,” he said, “I will deliberately provoke your thoughts to pay special attention to issues of infrastructure, value addition, agriculture and climate change”.
The ascension of Mugabe, one of Africa’s most divisive figures, to the rotating position has drawn criticism.
“Frankly I don’t believe the elevation (Mugabe’s appointment) is anything than symbolic,” said Piers Pigou, Southern Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. “His elevation sends a negative signal of African solidarity with leaders who’ve misruled their countries.”
Obert Gutu, a spokesman for the Zimbabwean opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said that 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.”
Traditionally, the AU chairmanship is given to the leader of the country hosting the next summit, but exceptions have been made as in 2005 when it was the turn of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir but African leaders bowed to international pressures in the uproar over killings in Darfur.
They passed over al-Bashir and instead kept Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo for a second year.
Zimbabwe, a once-prosperous nation of 13 million people in southern Africa, has struggled since Mugabe’s government began seizing farms owned by Caucasian people in 2000.
The president is also accused of using widespread violence to win several disputed elections, according to human rights groups. The country had suffered hyperinflation until it abandoned its currency for the US dollar in 2009.