Southern African Development Community leaders have neglected to use an opportunity to lead from the front, following Bingu wa Mutharika's passing.
Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika’s sudden death last week, which resulted in Vice-President Joyce Banda assuming power in a peaceful and constitutional manner, provides an opportunity for the Southern African Development Community to improve its tarnished image, according to several prominent analysts.
Dr Timothy Murithi of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation said the community’s failure to deal with the rogue behaviour of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, Swaziland’s King Mswati III and Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina, as well as the decision last year to suspend the SADC Tribunal, “has dragged down SADC’s standing internationally and on the continent”.
Murithi said, however, that the peaceful transfer of power in Zambia last year, coupled with the peaceful transfer of power in Malawi this week, made it possible for SADC’s leaders to “finally back up with evidence all their rhetoric about the importance of good governance and the rule of law”.
Malawi is due to host the African Union summit in June next year at which members will vote for a new chairperson. The stakes are particularly high for South Africa because, after causing a stalemate in the January election, the country’s candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, will again contest the position of AU chairperson.
Malawi sets a good example
University of Johannesburg deputy vice-chancellor Adam Habib said Malawi’s peaceful transfer of power would reflect well on South Africa and its SADC support base at the AU’s Lilongwe summit.
But he said that South Africa had failed to make the most of several sudden changes in Africa’s political climate and the government’s response to Mutharika’s death and his succession by Banda appeared little different.
“In response to the very sudden changes in Libya, Egypt and now Syria, the Western powers have changed tactics, painting themselves as the champions of grassroots democracy in Africa.
“I am convinced that it is neither the West nor the East that will save us. Africa can only be saved by Africans and they need to play off West and East against each other to maximise opportunities for themselves. But this requires African states to have some capacity and for African superpowers like South Africa to have a coherent strategy. At the moment South Africa appears to have lost focus and is losing out.”
Murithi said SADC and South Africa were “not exactly in the front row when it came to condemning Mutharika’s authoritarian style of governance and in warning him and his clique against subverting the Constitution”.
Tom Wheeler, a former South African ambassador to Malawi, said it was likely that South Africa’s diplomats had been following the situation carefully. But South Africa’s policy of not intervening in other African countries, which the other SADC nations share, “would have kept the government from making public declarations of support or condemnation when they possibly should have done”.
Mutharika died on April 5, but the Malawian government only announced his death on April 7. The South African government kept silent when asked whether Mutharika’s body was in South Africa, which it was. It has since emerged that the announcement was delayed because a clique of politicians close to Mutharika was attempting to subvert the Constitution by having Banda barred from replacing Mutharika as president.
Department of international relations and cooperation spokesperson Clayson Monyela said South Africa’s silence “cannot be construed as problematic, because it is inconceivable that one country should be the first to announce the death of another country’s president”.
The United States government in effect announced Mutharika’s death to the world in an April 6 statement in which it offered condolences to Mutharika’s widow and warned that “Malawi’s Constitution lays out a clear path for succession and we expect it to be observed”.
Murithi said the difference between responses from SADC and Western governments to Mutharika’s death were telling.
“The Western powers with their clear stance and interventionist communication ended up looking good, whereas SADC and South Africa merely looked like they were following the political winds,” he said.
“[But] it’s not too late for SADC to take ownership of the peaceful and democratic power transitions in Zambia and Malawi and to effect a paradigm shift in the way SADC works and is perceived.”