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In times of political crises, as was recently experienced in Zimbabwe, citizens expect the regional body to take a bold stance against leaders who disregard human rights and hinder the advancement of democracy. Zimbabweans were quick to remember the numerous previous failures of the regional community. They roundly rejected SADC’s intervention.

The recent historic end of President Robert Mugabe’s 37-year reign in Zimbabwe was a momentous occasion on many levels, for the people of Zimbabwe at home and abroad as well as for Africans in general. Whether it was a coup, a “soft-coup” or a military diffusing a difficult situation is a matter for serious discussion, given the implications for other countries in the region. However, one great lesson from this episode for Africa, that needs to be explored is how regional bodies, in particular the Southern African Development Community (SADC), are in danger of being rejected completely by the people they purport to serve, because of their actions. The immediate reaction of SADC towards the recent quagmire in Zimbabwe and the rejection of the regional body by Zimbabweans is a cause for concern. 

In the days after the military intervention, Zimbabweans were united in their rejection of any intervention from SADC and were prepared to mobilise against any sort of intervention from SADC. For many, SADC was viewed as only attempting to step in because a member of its “boys club” was under threat.

On 16 November 2017, a day after the soldiers appeared in a live broadcast on the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) saying they had taken control of the country’s strategic points, SADC sprang into action, calling an emergency meeting in Botswana where it “noted with great concern” the unfolding situation in Zimbabwe. There, SADC also resolved to gather for another emergency meeting in Angola. But the regional bloc had misread the mood. It was not business as usual. As it has done in the past with crisis situations, SADC was acting slowly and not showing that it was considering the situation with the seriousness it deserved.

The backlash from citizens was overwhelming. Zimbabweans viewed SADC as dragging its feet to prolong the exit of Mugabe, just as it had done in the past. Citizens mobilised and in a show of citizen power not seen in Zimbabwe in the past, thousands turned up for street protests demanding the immediate resignation of Mugabe and for SADC to stay out of Zimbabwe’s affairs. The posters on Harare’s streets sent a clear message to SADC: The people were fed up with it. Some posters read: “SADC leave Zimbabwe to deal with its issues” and “SADC and African Union stay out of our affairs! This is what we want as Zimbabweans: Mugabe OUT!”

Despite the massive protests, SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security and SADC chairman, South African President Jacob Zuma, seemingly still out of step with the situation, met in Luanda, Angola. This time, the meeting resolved to dispatch Zuma and his Angolan counterpart President Joao Lourenco to Harare to “further assess” the situation. Activists began mobilising for the arrival of the two presidents, who were likely to walk into massive demonstrations against their visit — a potentially huge embarrassment for SADC. Pressure from within Zimbabwe forced Mugabe to resign and their trip was cancelled.

Zimbabweans rejected SADC intervention because of SADC’s handling of crises in the country over the decades – slow action, soft approaches to stolen elections and weak resolutions and communiques after summits. For many years, Zimbabwe’s opposition parties and civil society groups such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network and Crisis in Zimbabwe have approached SADC to intervene in matters of electoral violence, rigged elections and repression of activists. They argued that Zimbabwe was violating SADC’s electoral norms and guidelines. Save for weakly worded communiques after summits, no meaningful help came from the regional grouping during periods when Zimbabweans needed them most. In fact, SADC endorsed the disputed elections.

It is also still within living memory for citizens of the region how SADC disbanded its own court — the SADC Tribunal — after it embarrassed Mugabe with an unfavourable ruling on a land dispute case. SADC agreed in 2010 to suspend the court and review its functions and terms of reference. The tribunal was later disbanded. Many saw this action as protecting Mugabe.

It is clear that SADC has to reinvent itself or accept that it will remain irrelevant to Southern Africans if it continues on the current trajectory. Granted, on paper SADC has world-class instruments worth noting such as the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, which provides excellent principles for conducting democratic elections and guidelines for observer missions to elections. Yet SADC has consistently let Zimbabwe off the hook when elections were conducted in a way that violated these principles.

For Zimbabwe, SADC could have borrowed lessons from some of the actions taken by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) when its members are in crisis.  Most recently in January 2017, ECOWAS played an active role in ensuring that former Gambian President Yayah Jammeh ultimately respected the will of Gambians after he lost elections a month earlier in December 2016. ECOWAS exerted pressure on the former Gambian leader and deployed a joint military force, eventually forcing former President Jammeh to leave the country.

ECOWAS has a history of taking a firm stance and intervening militarily in political crises and conflicts in member states, to enforce democracy. It led military interventions in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in the 1990s and forced former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo out of office after he, like Jammeh, clung to power despite losing the 2010 elections to current President Alassane Ouattara. 

Another action of ECOWAS in November 2017 has put it ahead of other regional bodies. The ECOWAS Court of Justice boldly delivered a landmark ruling that the 2015 dismissal of Sierra Leone’s former vice president Samuel Sam-Sumana — who had fallen out with President Earnest Bai Koroma — was illegal and that he should receive backdated salary and benefits. The court dismissed Sierra Leone’s argument that it has no jurisdiction over the matter. Sierra Leone has rejected the ruling.

In times of political crises, as recently experienced in Zimbabwe, SADC citizens expect the regional body to take a bold stance against leaders who disregard human rights and hinder the advancement of democracy. Citizens of Zimbabwe were quick to remember the intransigence of the regional community in times of crises and its inability or unwillingness to act to preserve the rule of law and democracy. If SADC fails to urgently re-invent itself and move with the times, it will be told to stay away from future crisis situations in member countries while citizens chart their own paths.

* TELDAH MAWARIRE is an advocacy officer at global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.



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