Harare (AFP) - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on Sunday opened a summit of southern African leaders by calling for countries to drive growth by exporting more finished goods instead of raw materials.
The 90-year-old leader took over as chairman of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) from Malawi's Peter Mutharika after almost a decade of being excluded from positions of power in the 15-member bloc.
He is also in line to lead the 54-nation African Union from next year.
Southern Africa must "wean itself from exporting raw materials and create value chains that will lead to the exportation of finished products," he told the opening of the two-day summit.
"Our region has abundant resources, which instead of being sold in raw form at very low prices must be exploited and beneficiated to add value to the products which we export."
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 but a series of economic crises, flawed elections and brutal crackdowns that have brought UN sanctions and turned the former revolutionary into a Western pariah.
He was the only leader from southern Africa not invited to attend a major US-African summit in Washington earlier this month, which included some 45 of the continent's heads of state.
Rights groups last week urged southern African countries to address abuses and uphold individual freedoms at the meeting in the Zimbabwean resort town of Victoria Falls.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights deplored "serious human rights concerns" in Angola, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
They accused Harare of dragging its feet to prosecute perpetrators of political violence in past elections, and denounced secrecy around mining rights and the country's lucrative diamond fields.
Speaking in the Zimbabwean resort town of Victoria Falls on Sunday, Mugabe said the SADC the bloc prides itself in an impressive track record in peace, security and democracy.
Regional security and socio-economic development are at the top of the agenda of the meeting, which ends on Monday.
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