This weekend's Robert Mugabe-chaired pow-wow has drawn fire for ignoring the region's political crises.
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe will have reason to smile when he opens the 34th Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Victoria Falls.
For the next 12 months Mugabe will chair the 15-member organisation and Zimbabwe is likely to host a number of meetings like the one taking place this weekend at the impressive Elephant Hills resort, nowadays buzzing with conference-goers from across the region, eager for a top-notch experience in the spray of Mosi-oa-Tunya itself: Victoria Falls.
Mugabe (90) was also nominated as deputy chairperson of the African Union earlier this year, making him first in line to be appointed chair of the continental organisation at its next summit – a way for the elderly statesman to go out in style if ever he were to think of retiring. The entering into politics of his wife Grace (49), amid infighting in the ruling Zanu-PF, has led some commentators to believe this might finally be on the cards.
According to the state-owned Herald newspaper, Mugabe has also asked his compatriots to welcome visitors to the summit “joyfully”, something that might be more difficult for everyone to do in a morose economic climate.
The SADC summit, officially themed “Leveraging the Region’s Diverse Resources for Sustainable Economic and Social Development through Beneficiation and Value Addition”, is likely to be an occasion for leaders in the region to highlight recent successes.
A united front by SADC ministers of health – who met in Johannesburg last week – against the Ebola virus crisis can be seen as a good practical example of regional co-operation.
SADC will also congratulate itself for placating the political role players in Lesotho, where Parliament was suspended in June, amid rumours of a possible coup d’état or total collapse of the coalition government.
Both President Jacob Zuma and Namibia’s Hifikepunye Pohamba, current chairperson of the SADC organ on politics, defence and security co-operation, travelled to Lesotho to try to reconcile the differences between Prime Minister Thomas Thabane from the All Basotho Convention party and his deputy, Mothetjoa Metsing, from the Lesotho Congress for Democracy.
At the end of July, a coalition delegation led by Metsing, was invited to Namibia, where Pohamba seemed to have convinced the protagonists to work together. Reports in Lesotho media last weekend indicate Parliament might reopen in mid-September.
Dr Motlamele Kapa from the University of Lesotho’s political science department, however, said the reopening is premature and if it is done just to show SADC that the collation crisis is over, this would create even more problems.
“We don’t see the point of opening Parliament while the main issues have not been addressed,” he told the Mail & Guardian this week. In June, the Commonwealth secretariat facilitated a visit by the coalition to New Zealand, which has a similar mixed electoral system as Lesotho, but Kapa says the recommendations of the visit have still not been implemented.
Lesotho discussion uncertain
Whether the Lesotho situation will be officially discussed at the summit, is still not clear.
In fact, in the official communiqué in the run-up to the summit, no mention is made of any political issues – a worrying sign, according to Institute for Security Studies researcher Dimpho Motsamai.
“The elephant in the room is SADC’s strategic indicative plan on the organ on defence, politics and security, which is an integral part of the SADC development agenda. It is a crucial blueprint for intervention in issues like early warning, governance and human rights, but is completely ignored in the communiqué,” says Motsamai.
Once again, lack of democracy and freedom of expression in Swaziland will not figure anywhere on the agenda. Motsamai says SADC can only intervene in a crisis if it is identified as such by the heads of state or if the country invited SADC in, as was the case with Lesotho. Analysts say it is unlikely that Mugabe will play any leading role in trying to promote democratic reforms in the region. For Mugabe, the number of heads of state at the summit will be a sign of his popularity.
Zambia’s President Michael Sata, who only needs to cross the Zambezi to attend the summit, has announced he is not attending, officially for cost-saving reasons.
Sata’s absence, however, shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a rebuff to Mugabe since the Zambian leader also didn’t attend the recent US-Africa summit in Washington and skipped the last SADC summit in Malawi. The media in Lusaka are, instead, speculating that Sata is not in good health.
Human rights blow
The plan by the heads of state of the SADC to revive the dormant SADC tribunal as an “inter-state” court is a blow for the rule of law in the region, lawyers and human rights activists believe.
According to the SADC secretariat, a report on the tribunal will be discussed at the SADC summit in Zimbabwe this weekend.
The tribunal, based in Namibia, was suspended by the heads of state in 2010 following a successful bid to the court by Zimbabwean farmers to claim their land back. Subsequently, a new tribunal accessible only to member states has been proposed.
Makanatsa Makonese, the executive secretary of the SADC Lawyers’ Association, said the reinstatement of the court would be welcomed: it is something the association has long lobbied for. But if the court can only rule on disputes between states it will lose most of its value.
“What we need is for all individuals to have recourse to justice,” she said. “If they cannot have it in their own country, they must be able to get it elsewhere in the region.”
“We want the court reinstated with its full mandate.”
Professor Laurie Nathan, the director of the Centre for Mediation in Africa at the University of Pretoria, said the planned move to create an “arbitration forum” to replace a court that can deal with matters pertaining to human rights, rule of law and governance was “hugely disappointing”.
He said South Africa should have spoken out at the SADC summit when the tribunal was effectively “disbanded”. “Why did our minister of justice not say anything? This is a huge political event in a region where many states don’t support human rights and the rule of law,” he said. In the past, South African courts have accepted the rulings of the tribunal.
Earlier this year, African Union leaders voted to grant immunity to heads of state before the planned new African Court, initially conceived as an African alternative to the International Criminal Court. Activists said this was also a step backward on the path to create a pan-African justice system.