Victorial Falls, Zimbabwe - Regional leaders enthroned President Robert Mugabe as their new chairman at a scheduled meeting in Zimbabwe, in a move described by analysts as geo-politically advantageous and giving the 90-year-old some long-sought regional recognition.
The 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) on Sunday handed the rotating chair to Mugabe from Malawi's President Peter Mutharika at the 34th Heads of State summit in the resort town of Victoria Falls, a year after the bloc controversially endorsed the outcome of disputed elections in the southern African country that extended Mugabe's 34-year rule by another five years.
The SADC's observer mission for the July 31 elections judged the vote as free, but withheld their verdict on the poll's fairness, amid opposition accusations of outright electoral fraud.
Mutharika, 74, the brother of the late Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika who in May defeated Joyce Banda, southern Africa's first female president and the first woman to head the bloc since its inception 34 years ago, handed the rotating one-year chairmanship of SADC to Mugabe at the the two-day summit attended by 13 presidents.
Zambia leader Michael Sata and his Angolan counterpart Jose Eduardo dos Santos were represented by their deputies.
Reliance on goodwill
Mugabe told the summit SADC's over-reliance on the goodwill of Western countries compromised its ownership of the regional bloc.
"How can we proudly claim SADC to be our own organisation when close to 60 percent of our programmes are externally funded," Mugabe asked amid rapturous applause from over 700 delegates.
"As SADC, we should not lose sight of our regional integration agenda, our focus and priorities. We also should not be tempted to introduce, or embrace, too many programmes which, in the end, we fail to fund from our own resources."
Behind closed doors, the summit also discussed the political and socio-economic situation in the region, free trade, value addition and beneficiation for regional economies and other regional issues, according to new SADC executive secretary Stergomena Lawrence Tax.
How can we proudly claim SADC to be our own organisation when close to 60 percent of our programmes are externally funded?
As chair of SADC, Zimbabwe will have to host all meetings of the regional bloc over the next year, including at the heads of State level, extraordinary summits and meetings of the Council of Ministers.
Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), still hoping for a solution over the disputed election, dispatched MDC leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai's deputy Thokozani Khupe and some top party officials to Victoria Falls, ahead of the summit, to press the party's case for fresh dialogue with Mugabe and the deepening economic crisis to the regional heads of state.
The summit declined to entertain the opposition concerns, saying they were "internal issues", according to Lieutenant-Colonel Tanki Mothae, director of the SADC Troika.
The regional bloc five years ago mediated a power-sharing deal between Mugabe and Tsvangirai after the disputed elections.
Tsvangirai claims last July's vote was also "stolen" and has called for fresh "internationally mediated talks" to "save the economy".
Mugabe has not reached out to the opposition leader, and insists he was re-elected in a free and fair ballot.
Observers say Mugabe - long accused by opposition lawmakers of human rights violations, undermining democracy and electoral fraud - has been marginally reforming, and recent overtures have included calls for peace with the opposition and some tolerance of criticism. But critics also say there are still key questions around the implementation of a new constitution passed in a referendum in March 2013, and a deepening socio-economic crisis in the wake of Mugabe's re-election.
At a joint news conference held in Zimbabwe's capital Harare ahead of the summit on Thursday, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights named Angola, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe as countries where human rights were deteriorating. They urged SADC to train their eyes on the five countries over the next year if the bloc was to retain some credibility. The rights groups cited arrests of political activists and journalists.
Held under the theme "Leveraging on natural resources for sustainable socio-economic transformation through beneficiation and value addition," the summit resonated with Mugabe's drive to transfer majority stakes in foreign firms to local blacks, which economic experts say has spooked foreign investors and dealt a fatal blow to attempts to lure international capital into the economically-troubled country.
"To achieve the SADC summit theme of economic transformation, Zimbabwe and other countries in the region should promote good governance, uphold the rule of law and respect human rights," Tiseke Kasambala, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch told the news conference.
A communique issued by civil society groups after a conference held on the sidelines of the summit said they were "deeply concerned that key issues relating to the state of human rights and democracy, in particular elections, rule of law, peace and security" had been sidelined by the summit.
Mfundo Mlilo, spokesman for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition - a conglomeration of 350 civil society groups - said there was a danger that Zimbabwe may export its radical policies to the region, with devastating consequences for other regional economies.
It certainly affirms SADC recognition of Mugabe as elected leader of Zimbabwe - although it doesn't detract from the very serious criticisms levelled at the electoral process
Mlilo said they "raised the red flag" about the hazards of implementing some of Mugabe's empowerment policies such as land grabs and expropriation of stakes in foreign companies because of the "challenges that we are seeing in Zimbabwe which can be easily exported to other countries".
He said SADC must check Mugabe's policies before they wreck the bloc. SADC leaders must develop a new framework on its role on the unfolding crisis in Zimbabwe, Mlilo said.
"There is no doubt that the country is facing serious economic and political challenges that are a threat to regional peace, stability and growth," he said.
Stephen Chan, professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said Mugabe's tenure as SADC chair was a ploy by regional leaders to coax him to hand over power to a successor.
"The chairman is primarily a ceremonial and symbolic position," Chan told Al Jazeera.
"The AU [African Union] will be conferring a similar honour upon president Mugabe. In a way, the African organisations may well be suggesting that these honorific positions in a multinational setting are a step towards handing over the baton in his own country."
Piers Pigou, southern African director of the International Crisis Group, said the SADC chair was "a symbolic gesture by the region, recognising his contribution and I would imagine an intended fillip to further Zimbabwean reform – I think this may also be true of RGM [Robert Gabriel Mugabe] as vice and then chair of the AU".
Officials in Mugabe's administration say the SADC chair confers legitimacy on the veteran leader, and leaves the opposition with "egg on their face", according to Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo.
But Pigou said: "Does it confer legitimacy? Well, it depends what you are talking about and who you are talking to? In terms of domestic opposition - political and civil society, as well as those who were critical of elections, international and some regional, for example Botswana - no, I don't think this adds or detracts from his own legitimacy.
"It certainly affirms SADC recognition of Mugabe as elected leader of Zimbabwe - although it doesn't detract from the very serious criticisms levelled at the electoral process, which remain unaddressed."