SADC diplomats fear Zimbabwe may abuse its new positions to settle old scores with Europe, at the expense of the continent.
Zimbabwe's "reckless" foreign policy may isolate it from its regional peers when it takes over leadership of key African blocs later this year, according to senior diplomats in Harare.
President Robert Mugabe takes over as chair of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) in August this year, and will lead the African Union (AU) next year after he was appointed deputy of the African Union Bureau in Addis Ababa in January.
Mugabe is eager to take leadership in Africa after years away from the levers of power both in the region and at the AU. His officials have said the appointments are a blow to Western opponents.
But after a debacle this month that saw Zimbabwe boycott the summit between the European Union (EU) and Africa in Brussels, some diplomats in the region now fear Mugabe's tenure could hurt relations between the West and the African blocs.
"Our hope is for more economic ties with more economic blocs in Africa, Europe and elsewhere. The whole [EU-Africa summit] debacle does little to inspire confidence that Zimbabwe won't use its leadership to settle scores at the expense of the continent," a senior diplomat from Tanzania said this week.
Boycott of EU-Africa summit
Zimbabwe boycotted the EU-Africa summit after first lady Grace Mugabe was denied a visa, even though the EU had relaxed its sanctions to allow Mugabe to attend. Zimbabwe failed to get other African countries to boycott in solidarity.
"Africa understands the anger Zimbabwe has over its treatment by the EU and the United States. But there are many who feel the way you [Zimbabwe] are approaching it, roping everyone else in and being reckless, does little to benefit the continent," the diplomat said.
After Zimbabwe's election to the AU post, Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi said it was a victory over Mugabe's Western critics, who have fought to isolate Zimbabwe. "This represents one of the biggest successes of our diplomacy, and a slap in the face for those who want us isolated."
With more authority in Africa than it has had in years, there are already signs that Zimbabwe will wield its power to pull Africa behind it in its long-running dispute with Europe and the US.
But even senior government officials caution against using its leadership to fight the West. Much of Africa still depends on the West for aid, and antagonising the EU would only undermine Zimbabwe's role as a regional leader, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Chris Mutsvangwa.
"This is a very important assignment. The EU is an important bloc, which has trade relations with many African countries. We should be sensitive to their vulnerabilities," Mutsvangwa said.
Refusing to engage the EU would only make Mugabe's position weaker, he added. "We want our president to be an influential leader of SADC, and yet we want to yank away one major bloc like the EU. How is that going to make Zimbabwe's position in international relations strong?"
A senior foreign affairs official, speaking on condition he was not named, said there is a chance of "running battles" with regional powerhouse South Africa during Zimbabwe's tenure, should Mugabe pursue a "bullish approach to leadership".
"We are aware of that possibility and is something we have to prepare for. If Zimbabwe is to assert itself it has to prepare to deal with South Africa and others."
'We need more friends than enemies'
An anonymous columnist in the state-owned Sunday Mail said at the weekend that Zimbabwe's new leadership role would require that it tempers its hardline position on bilateral relations for the good of the entire continent.
"The appointment of [Mugabe] to the deputy chair of SADC as well as the deputy chair of the AU burdens us with continental responsibility that requires a more tactful approach. Surely Mumbengegwi does not think he will hold the business of the entire African continent to ransom if the Europeans decide to keep playing dirty," the columnist wrote.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said Zimbabwe's foreign policy is leaving the country lagging behind.
"This world is fast globalising. It is getting smaller and smaller. We need more friends than enemies," said MDC official Obert Gutu. Zimbabwe now needed "to start playing smart politics as well as smart international relations", he said.