Some of the most powerful leaders in the world sat around him, chortling as he candidly dissed the West and bursting into applause when he told them Africa would no longer accept a position of inferiority. What they forgot as they rose in a standing ovation is that Zimbabwean opposition figures go missing and citizens are not treated with respect by the government.
Taking the podium at the 26th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe made his final speech as African Union chairperson to thunderous applause.
He lambasted the West’s lingering presence in Africa, spoke of the continent’s painful history of slavery and colonialism, and looked United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon in the eye as he delivered the knockout blow: slamming the UN Security Council’s refusal to take African representatives seriously.
“I want to tell you, Mr Ban Ki-moon, you are a good man, but of course we can’t make you a fighter. That’s not what your mission was. We will fight a fight for our own identity, our own integrity and personality as Africans. We are Africans,” Mugabe said.
The speech was charming and everything people from African nations want to hear – how many heads of state have the guts to tell the UN where they can shove it? For nearly an hour, Mugabe had people entranced in a setting that would normally induce yawns rather than laughter. To the amusement of the representatives at the summit, Mugabe gave Ban a break because he’s from Asia, but imparted a few messages for him to deliver to Western members of the UN.
“I wonder if you have told them that we also are humans,” he said. “Tell them that we are not ghosts, that we also belong to the world.”
The trouble is Mugabe probably knows that, according to international laws, he’s not much better than those he is criticising.
He spoke of modern slavery being defined as the “denial of rights”, but that is exactly what is happening in Zimbabwe. Activists are disappearing as police crack down on any form of opposition to Mugabe’s rule. Yes, human rights watchdogs have indicated an improvement in Zimbabwe’s record since 2009, but it’s not enough.
“How can we live freely in this country when those who peacefully protest disappear?” Sheffra Dzamara, wife of missing Zimbabwean activist Itai Dzamara, told the Guardian.
People used to surround Dzamara while he sat in the barbershop, getting his hair done, as he chatted about Zimbabwe’s political climate. After Dzamara delivered a petition to the government, asking Mugabe to step down for his failure to create jobs and for a new, fair election to take place, he disappeared. It’s 10 months later and the father of two is still missing, but Mugabe’s government denies involvement.
In July 2015 Zimbabwean news outlets reported that another eight Zimbabweans were on Interpol’s missing persons list.
While Dzamara’s family still waits for news on his whereabouts, Mugabe told Ban: “We are supposed to be free and independent, Mr Ban Ki-moon. We have asked and asked and asked … Reform! Reform the security council,” he said, as whistles and cheers erupted.
Mugabe is right. The UN Security Council must reform to include representatives from Africa. Why shouldn’t our continent be heard on one of the world’s most powerful platforms when its participants often decide the fate of our neighbours?
He was right to look Ban square in the eye and mock his institution. And he made a brilliant point questioning the headquarters of the UN being in New York City when the combined populations of India, China and Africa would overwhelm those of Western nations.
But we remind you, Mr Mugabe, that, unlike China and India, Africa is not a country.
Where he went even more wrong was to highlight the controversy around his own leadership, and people still applauded without seeming the least bit awkward.
“How many are they [in the West]? Do we allow that [this] group should continue to harass us even in our independent countries? ‘Regime change; Mugabe should not be there?’” Mugabe said. “You get some people still saying: ‘Because we are white and you are black, we can’t give you the honour of equality in the security council.’ Nonsense.”
But what about the black man who oppresses and harasses his fellow black countrymen? Is he any better?
We temporarily forgave President Jacob Zuma for his trespasses when he invoked the spirit of Jan van Riebeeck in Parliament last year, and gave the National Assembly a history lesson on the land battle between Afrikaners and Europeans and how it affected the black population who had initially welcomed them.
It is in these moments, when leaders speak honestly about our collective oppression at the hands of colonialism, that we find hope that somewhere deep down, beneath their alleged corruption and complicity in further marginalisation, they know the struggle has not been won.
The disappointment comes afterwards in realising that, even though they might know what people are fighting for, they don’t care – because power is all they want.