ZIMBABWEAN President Robert Mugabe took over the post of African Union chairman on Friday, replacing Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, vowed to protect the continent’s resources from “imperialists and colonialists.”
Mugabe, who turns 91 in February, thanked God for recent oil finds in Africa that the “blind eyes of colonialists could not see.” He made the comments in a speech to leaders in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa after being named chairman of the 54-nation group for a one-year term.
In his address to leaders, Mr Mugabe spoke of the need to take advantage of Africa’s mineral wealth and agricultural potential, and guard against exploitation by foreigners.
He said African countries wanted relationships with “friends”, but “colonialists and imperialists” had no place in the continent.
“By electing me to preside over this august body, with full knowledge of the onerous responsibility that lies ahead, I humbly accept your collective decision,” Mugabe said, as he thanked leaders for granting him the position.
Later, he received applause when he referred to the long-running territorial dispute in Western Sahara between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.
“As long as our brothers in Western Sahara are under Moroccan occupation we are not totally free,” he said.
Mugabe, a former liberation war hero who is Africa’s third-longest serving leader, is viewed with deep respect by many on the continent.
The AU chairmanship is a rotating position and largely ceremonial. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, is also currently chairman of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community. He took up that post a year after winning the July 2013 election, which the main opposition party, Western nations and domestic observers said was flawed.
Western diplomatic sources said his election as AU chairman was unlikely to have much impact on relations.
Mugabe’s relationship with the U.S., U.K. and Europe worsened after 2000 when elections, marred by irregularities, were followed by the often violent invasion of white-owned farms and political persecution of members of the opposition.
The U.S., European Union, Canada, Australia and New Zealand imposed sanctions on Mugabe and senior members of his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party, restricting travel and financial transactions.
The European Union has since removed most of its sanctions against Zimbabwe and resumed aid after the economy shrank by about 40 percent between 2000 and 2009.
Last year Mugabe boycotted an EU-Africa Summit in Brussels after he was given a rare invitation — but his wife was still denied a visa.
Zimbabwe has the world’s second-largest chrome and platinum reserves, as well as gold, diamonds and iron ore. Anglo American Platinum Ltd., Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd. and Rio Tinto Group are among companies mining in the country.
* The BBC, Bloomberg and AFP contributed to this report.