The Zimbabwean president is keen to improve his image as the mooted new chair of the regional body, but critics are worried.
President Robert Mugabe’s government has begun preparations for an August Southern African Development Community summit at which he is expected to assume chairmanship of the 15-member body, marking his comeback into regional leadership.
Mugabe and Zanu-PF have in recent years been regarded as pariahs by the international community over alleged human rights violations and election rigging, and the latest elevation is thought to be a tonic for a man who has grappled with the worst ever crisis in his political career.
SADC, a regional economic and political community comprising 15 member states, had been preoccupied with the crisis in Zimbabwe since 2000, when Mugabe embarked on a controversial land reform programme that triggered an unprecedented economic crisis that later forced the country to abandon its currency in 2009.
A foreign affairs official said the department is “working flat out” to ensure a successful event.
“We’ve been in the limelight for the wrong reasons over the past few years. Now it’s our time to shine,” said the official, who cannot be named because he is not authorised to speak to the press.
Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi said: “Yes, preparations for the SADC summit are at an advanced stage. We shall be updating the nation soon.”
Officials within the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe said they have been asked to renovate the Victoria Falls Airport and create a VVIP lounge for delegates to the SADC summit, expected to be held on August 17 and 18 in the resort town of Victoria Falls.
Concern over Mugabe’s leadership
But critics worry over the possibility that the SADC under the leadership of Mugabe could fail to push forward the democratisation of the region, considering that his government has a reputation for undemocratic tendencies and alleged election rigging.
“We don’t think his leadership will take SADC forward in terms of the new ideals of democracy,” said a white ex-farmer who declined to be named.
“SADC suspended the SADC Tribunal because it handed down judgments [Mugabe] considered unfavourable to his government. What might happen if he assumes the SADC chairmanship?”
The SADC Tribunal was a court and the highest policy institution of the regional body. It was disbanded during the 2012 SADC summit in Mozambique after Zimbabwe rejected its judgment in a case in which 79 white commercial farmers, led by the late Mike Campbell, challenged the government’s expropriation of their farms without compensation.
The government said the judgment, which went in favour of the evicted white farmers, undermined its land reform programme.
Regional justice ministers and attorneys general were mandated to negotiate a new protocol for the tribunal, with its jurisdiction limited to the interpretation of the SADC treaty and settling disputes among member states.
Mugabe is expected to preside over this newly constituted organ when he becomes SADC chairperson.
‘We understand him’
Alois Masepe, a political commentator, said it would be foolish to expect Mugabe to push the reform agenda at SADC.
“We’re not still trying to understand him; we understand him. He’ll not develop the democratic agenda as you define it. That’s not an urgent issue for him,” said Masepe.
He maintained: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Zanu-PF has come out very clear that they believe in a one-party state. It’s still enshrined in their Constitution.”
He said that, by allowing Mugabe to assume the chairmanship at its next summit, SADC would be failing to state its case against the one-party- state mentality.
The only ruler Zimbabweans have known since independence in 1980, Mugabe was elected as the first chairperson of the SADC organ on defence, politics and security co-operation in June 1996.
A source within the presidency said Mugabe is anxious to leave a legacy and could astound his critics.
Although he remains under targeted sanctions by the West, the region appears to have warmed to the Zimbabwean leader after last year’s election that he won against MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, whose party is torn by internal strife that is now expected to culminate in a split in its ranks.
Aldo Dell’Ariccia, ambassador and head of the European Union delegation to Zimbabwe, said he is unable to anticipate how the EU’s relationship with SADC would be affected should Mugabe assume its chairmanship.
“We’re still trying to process that. We’ve been asking for a meeting with the ministry of foreign affairs to understand their plans, but we’ve not had that meeting yet.
“We’ve had a privileged relationship with SADC, but obviously that will depend on what the plans [of the sitting chairperson] are. After our meeting with the foreign affairs officials, we will be able to give an answer.”