Harare, Zimbabwe - President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe takes over the one-year rotating chairmanship of the African Union (AU) on Friday - a move critics say will fail to benefit the continent because of his cold relationship with the Western world.

While the continent confronts a deepening menace from hard-line groups in West Africa and searches for funds to fight Ebola, the 54-member assembly meets in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, on Friday. African heads of state will hand over the chair to Mugabe at the summit, which some analysts see as an important opportunity for Zimbabwe's controversial president to present himself as a global statesman.

Mugabe, 90, replaces Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.  

 Mugabe turns 90

The AU leaders will inaugurate Mugabe, Africa's oldest head of state who turns 91 on February 21, as the new chairman at the gleaming AU headquarters - a $200m high-rise behemoth in Addis Ababa built and donated by the Chinese government. 

Mugabe is the only leader Zimbabwe has known since its independence from Britain in 1980. He'll serve a one-year term as the head of the AU.

Critics say as one of the most divisive, vocal and controversial leaders in southern Africa, with uncomfortable relations with Western countries, Mugabe's new role could stymie the fight against increasing violent attacks in Africa, an effort largely bankrolled by Western nations, pointedly France, the UK, and the US. 

Mugabe, who has been under Western sanctions for more than a decade, has shown stubborn defiance in the face of threats and American-led sanctions, and has missed no opportunity to cry out as the victim of Western vilification, double standards, and what he calls "rank hypocrisy".

Biting off too much?

Mugabe, who is also the chairperson of the 15-nation South African Development Community (SADC) until August 2015, is "biting more than he can chew", according to McDonald Lewanika, executive director of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition - a conglomeration of 350 civil society groups. 

"It is unfortunate that at this time - when Africa needs sound leadership from people who can reach out and access relations and networks that can aid major problems, which we are facing as a continent - a person like Mugabe is given responsibilities as the primary ... diplomat for the continent," Lewanika told Al Jazeera. 

"When too much responsibility is given to one man, we create opportunities for genius or for failure. Based on the record so far in dealing with Zimbabwe's own myriad challenges, it is unlikely that Mugabe's ascension to the AU chair will bring success, for obvious reasons associated with his own age, responsibilities at home, in the region and now the continent," said Lewanika. 

This is a bad time to be offering key roles on a validation basis as Africa is in need of people who do not see these positions as accolades, but as opportunities to actually make a difference.

- McDonald Lewanika, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition

"This is a bad time to be offering key roles on a validation basis as Africa is in need of people who do not see these positions as accolades, but as opportunities to actually make a difference in dealing with the many challenges facing Africa, including but not limited to, the Boko Haram challenge, the food security challenges, and the democracy deficits challenge."

From independence in 1980, Mugabe's Zimbabwe showed a promising focus on good governance, literacy, and reconciliation, but critics now say the southern African nation has become an economic basket-case with a myriad financial problems, a humanitarian crisis, and Mugabe-led repression of domestic opponents. 

Dewa Mavhinga, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the AU chairmanship "is an unimportant, ceremonial role that rotates annually falling on Mugabe in 2015.

"Unfortunately it is most unlikely that Mugabe will use whatever little influence the post carries to improve the human rights situation across the continent, especially in countries like Nigeria, inflicted by the Boko Haram scourge.

"Mugabe, who is also the SADC chairperson, has similarly failed to use his leadership there to influence positive change in Zimbabwe and in Southern Africa," Mavhinga said. 

Symbolic leader

Piers Pigou, southern Africa director at the International Crisis Group, agreed the chairmanship of the African Union is largely "ceremonial and symbolic".

"Public statements from the podium certainly help to define the continental priorities, and it will be interesting to see just what is emphasised and how this correlates to the issues and challenges that are percolating ... especially on the peace and security front, and with respect to immediate and long term human security challenges," Pigou said. 

"It is an important opportunity for President Mugabe to present himself as a global statesman once more, with a forward-looking, realistic and constructive agenda. It is hoped he will not use the platform to simply pursue a particular parochial brand of negative politicking that has become closely associated with Zanu PF [Mugabe's party].

"But it is also important to remember that the hard nuts and bolts of the work at the AU are overseen by the AU Commission Chair Dr Dlamini Zuma," Pigou said.

The Addis Ababa-based AU Commission is headed by South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was elected to a four-year term in July 2013, and is the first woman to head the organisation's secretariat.

Stephen Chan, professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said he expects that as chair of the AU, Mugabe will be concerned mainly with ceremonial and rhetorical roles. 

"There are AU organs that deal with security and defence, and it is these that will handle the planning and day-to-day conduct of cooperative security," Chan said. 

"Having said that, most Western military aid will be on a bilateral basis and very little of the 'hard' aid - that is munitions and high-specification equipment - will be disbursed multilaterally. In some senses, it will depend more on whether the UK and France can get a cooperative act together to help the military response from Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon. There is little money or real appetite for that now."

Source: Al Jazeera