By James Schneider
Polite clapping greeted Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's election as African Union (AU) chairperson on Friday in the Nelson Mandela Plenary Hall of the AU building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After holding a small AU flag with his predecessor, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Mugabe gave a well-delivered but far from fiery speech.
Despite these calm beginnings to Mugabe's year-long tenure as the ceremonial head of the AU, his new role has been interpreted as deliberate nose-thumbing at the West by large sections of the western media. Sections of the African media, meanwhile, have presented Mugabe's role as a great victory for the continent and a further step in its total liberation, economic as well as political.
Neither interpretation is close to the truth.
Searching for answers
First, the role is purely ceremonial. It is the Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who wields executive power.
Second, Mugabe was nearly the only viable candidate, elected almost by default. The chair rotates between the continent's five regions. This year it is the turn of Southern Africa. The majority of the region's leaders would be unable to serve as chair as they were so recently elected (the past 12 months has seen a bumper crop of elections) or are standing down soon.
Other candidates would have been unviable. For example, South Africa's Jacob Zuma is the ex-husband of Dlamini-Zuma, which rules him out, Botswana's Ian Khama's foreign policy - he is a supporter of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and rejected Zimbabwe's 2013 election results - is too maverick for the majority of AU members states, and King Mswati III of Swaziland has no electoral legitimacy as an absolute monarch.
Mugabe's candidature and election wasn't a calculated slight against the West or a sign of Africa's rising strength but a continuation of the status quo.
The uproar, real and imagined, around Mugabe's chairpersonship says much more about the underlying relationship between Africa and the West than representing any change in it. Unfortunately, this relationship can often be noxious, based on decades, if not centuries, of mistrust.
Many Africans, quite rightly, feel that the West has done little to reduce the exploitation set up by colonial rule. Many westerners dislike hearing criticism of the West from the AU, whose operating budget it primarily funds and many of whose members rely on aid. And so, leaders from either side can speak past each other, using rhetoric they feel comfortable with, but that doesn't engage the other party.
Practice what you preach
Neither African leaders, with their appeals to pan-Africanism, nor western leaders, with their focus on development, genuinely practice what they preach.
African leaders have shown great solidarity with Kenya's president Uhuru Kenyatta in his struggle with the ICC. However, they have proven far less effective in working together to deliver a robust, pragmatic political economic pan-Africanism. Currently Africa gets a "bad deal" on the majority of its resource deals, AUC deputy chair Erastus Mwencha declared in a press briefing last week.
To improve this situation, the continent needs "political economic solidarity", as Ibrahim Mayaki, CEO the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the AU's economic development programme, told me last week.
As Mayaki explained, "Many [resource] producing countries could get together in order to have a capacity development strategy, share best practices, work out rules and then initiate contract negotiation in a collective manner."
Likewise, western countries preach development, but in practice, 50 years of aid has done little to improve the relative power of Africa. Not only have development paradigms enforced from the outside, such as Structural Adjustment Policies, actively damaged African states' capacity to deliver for its citizens, but also the very notion of development, as conventionally practised seems suspect.
Making Africans richer
Western aid and economic engagement have provided much-needed services and short-term support. However, it appears that the entire paradigm is about making Africans richer in absolute terms, but not more powerful in relative terms.
The fundamental structures that maintain global economic inequality; tax havens, unequal trade agreements, global institutions with little African input, unfair western subsidies and the enforcement of a narrow set of economic policies; are left in place.
The emptiness of the rhetoric from both sides can lead to cynicism, which drives the responses of each elite. Many Africans think the West is just after their resources, so don't believe them on rights. Westerners think African elites are only out for themselves, and so ignore demands for greater economic and political equality between Africa and the West.
The majority of Africa's people, however, would benefit from more pan-Africanism, economic rights and a geopolitical rebalancing as well as secure liberal freedoms of assembly, the press, conscience and vote.
Ultimately, Mugabe's turn as chair of the AU will pass and little will change in the Africa-West relationship. To improve the situation, both sides need to live up to the brighter elements of their rhetoric.
African states need to engage in the kind of political-economic solidarity that strengthens Africa's bargaining position. Only this will force the rules that govern the global economy to become fairer to Africa.
Unless the West accepts a vision of development which sees Africa becoming more powerful - and unless African states work together to make that happen - Africa and the West will have a tetchy relationship regardless of who chairs the AU.
This article was originally published on Al Jazeera.
Image via EPA.