Feted at the UN For Decades, Africa’s Third Longest-Ruling Autocrat Bows Out

Patrick Goodenough | November 22, 2017 | 12:49am EST
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A U.N. protocol officer ushers Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe to the podium to address the U.N. General Assembly on September 21, 2017. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)

(CNSNews.com) – As Zimbabweans celebrated the resignation Tuesday of 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe, a United Nations spokesman declined to get into an “abstract philosophical” discussion on the longevity of autocrats who over decades are fixtures at the U.N.

After more than 37 years in power, Mugabe stepped down under pressure days after the military intervened in a bid to determine the outcome of a succession struggle between his wife and a recently-sacked vice-president.

During his rule, the small nation once dubbed the “breadbasket of Africa” became a de-facto one-party state, a country impoverished by government policies, subject to sometimes violent crackdowns on dissent, and riven by corruption (Transparency International’s annual corruption index placed Zimbabwe this year in 154th place out of 176 countries.)

Yet year after year Mugabe would appear at the U.N. General Assembly’s annual high-level fall meeting, treated with deference that his critics felt he did not deserve. (In 2008, he used his speech in New York to call the U.S. and Britain “perpetrators of genocide, acts of aggression and mass destruction” in Iraq.)

Last week, after U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric at a briefing read out a statement calling for the situation to be resolved through dialogue, he was asked about the U.N.’s historical approach towards Zimbabwe.

“Why has the U.N. been silent all of these years, including in the last few weeks, when Mugabe seemed to be violating these very principles of democracy and any sort of constitutional order?” a reporter asked.

Why was it only now, after the military intervention, that the U.N. is raising such concerns, the questioner added.

“I think, if you look back over the years, there have been times when the U.N., different parts of the U.N., have spoken up with concern about the situation in Zimbabwe,” Dujarric replied.

“We are very concerned at the situation as it is today,” he said. “We would not like to see any more destabilization.”

On Tuesday, Dujarric’s deputy Farhan Haq announced that U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres took note of Mugabe’s resignation and encouraged Zimbabweans to “maintain calm and restraint.”

A reporter pointed out that Mugabe “has been a regular feature at the United Nations for decades,” and asked whether Guterres perhaps had “a broader message that speaks to the longevity of President Mugabe, and whether that is good or bad.”

“Well, I don’t want to get into any abstract philosophical discussions,” Haq replied. “From our standpoint, of course, this secretarygeneral and his predecessors have made clear that we expect all leaders to listen to their people. That is a cornerstone of every form of government and needs to be followed in every continent and in every nation.”

Leadership posts

Beyond Mugabe’s annual appearances in New York, his regime has over the years been awarded numerous leadership positions across the U.N. system – the result of member-states’ nominations and votes rather than U.N. secretariat decisions.

Zimbabwe currently holds one of the General Assembly’s 21 vice presidencies.

It  is also on the governing council of the U.N. Human Settlements Program (2015-2018), a member of the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council, and on the World Food Program executive board (2017-2018) and has been three times on the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) executive board, most recently in 2008-2010.

In 2012, the U.N. World Tourism Organization appointed Mugabe as a tourism ambassador, and permitted Zimbabwe to host a general assembly the following year.

Canada withdrew from the UNWTO in protest, saying the appointment symbolized “what is wrong with the U.N.”  In Washington, then-House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) accused the U.N. of “propping up” dictators.

Just last month, the U.N.’s World Health Organization appointed Mugabe as a “goodwill ambassador” in the fight against non-communicable diseases – a decision reversed after sharp criticism.

“The U.N. must end its practice of elevating dictators instead of upholding human rights values,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of the non-governmental organization U.N. Watch, said Wednesday.

“It is telling that as the people of Zimbabwe now cheer Mugabe’s belated resignation, only weeks ago the U.N. had named the dictator as a goodwill ambassador.”

At the U.N. Human Rights Council, meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s human rights record has earned not one condemnatory resolution since the Geneva-based body was established in 2006.

Cameroon’s president Paul Biya, who has been in power for 42 years, meets with four consecutive U.N. secretary-generals: Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1996, Kofi Annan in 2005, Ban Ki-moon in 2007 and Antonio Guterres in 2017. (UN Photos)

Even longer

While Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years and seven months, two other current leaders in Africa have held power for even longer.

Paul Biya has ruled Cameroon for 42 years, and his counterpart in Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, has done so for 38 years.

Like Mugabe, Biya and Obiang make regular appearances at the General Assembly high-level meeting each September.

Cameroon was a General Assembly vice-president in 2015-16, has served five times on the UNICEF executive board, including a current 2016-2018 term, and was on the WFP executive board in 2013.

In Equatorial Guinea, Obiang seized power in a violent coup before having his toppled predecessor tried and executed. He won “elections” in 1989, 1996, 2002, 2009 and 2016, on each occasion receiving between 96-99 percent of the vote, according to official results.

Equatorial Guinea held a seat on the WFP executive board from 2014-2016.

In 2011 the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decided to name an international life sciences award for Obiang. Only after U.S.-led pressure was the decision amended, with the dictator’s name being removed from a prize with which he continues to be closely associated.

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