Civil Society Groups Oppose Mugabe as Next AU President

Civil society organizations are opposing the likely election of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe as the next president of the African Union. African leaders are expected to elect the 90-year-old Mugabe to the mostly ceremonial position at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa later this week.

Yves Niyiragira is with Fehamu, a pan-African umbrella organization for movements that focus on social justice.  He says electing Mugabe to the AU leadership post sends the wrong message to Africa’s citizens.

“We call up on the assembly of the heads of states and government to elect a president who represents the principals of good governance, respect for human rights, the rule of law and democracy, as articulated in the constitutive act of the African Union,” said Niyiragira.

President Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for nearly 35 years.  Rights groups say he has stayed in power largely through election rigging and the arrest and intimidation of opponents.  His re-election in the disputed and violent 2008 polls was especially controversial.

But Mugabe has company in the African Union.  The continental body has been often been called a “dictators club.”  Fehamu says Africa's 14 longest-serving heads of state have been in power for a combined 323 years.

Two presidents, Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema have been in office longer than Mugabe.

With 10 elections on the continent this year, Niyiragira is calling for the African Union to be more involved in ensuring free and fair elections.

“We are observing a trend where sitting heads of states and government are either attempting to change constitutions or attempting to extend their term of limit in many countries.  The attempt was done in Burkina Faso, it did not succeed.  There are attempts to do so in many countries, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Congo, Benin, Sierra Leone and many others that are going that route,” says Niyiragira.

The African Union has dismissed criticism it does not support free and fair elections.  The body says it sends observer teams to countries holding polls, and advises member states on how to address election-related problems.

But barring some unexpected development, the next AU president will be a man who has ruled his country with an iron fist, and continues to earn harsh criticism from human rights and pro-democracy groups.

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