As the new chairperson, he is already trying to further his own agenda in the region.
In July last year, President Robert Mugabe lashed out at regional leaders, who were insisting that Zimbabwe should hold elections in accordance with the election road map crafted by the country’s political parties with the help of the Southern Africa Development Community, and threatened to pull Zimbabwe out of it.
“We are in SADC voluntarily,” he told thousands of supporters, while he was announcing Zanu-PF’s election manifesto. “If SADC decides to do stupid things, we can withdraw.”
Now that things have changed and Mugabe is steering the SADC ship, the region is waiting to see whether he will bring his trademark dictatorial style to the regional body.
Strained relations with the West
At the recent SADC summit in Victoria Falls, diplomats spoke anonymously about how his continued strained relations with the West, particularly with Britain and the United States, would affect the region. The indications are that he will want to use the platform to fight these long-running battles, as evidenced by his calls at the opening and closing of the summit to regional leaders not to allow “hostile” countries to observe the forthcoming elections in Namibia and Mozambique.
Mugabe also brought another of his policies to the summit – the rejection of foreign aid. It is compromising the independence of the body, he said. “Our continued over-reliance on the generosity and goodwill of our co-operating partners tend to compromise our ownership and sustainability of SADC programmes.”
But, ironically, just as with Zimbabwe’s own domestic policy, China is the foreigner that gets special treatment. Mugabe told reporters after the closing ceremony that he hoped China would help to fund infrastructural projects in the region.
SADC has a regional infrastructure development master plan, Vision 2027, a 15-year blueprint that will guide the implementation of cross-border infrastructure projects between 2013 and 2027. Priority infrastructure projects identified by the region could cost $500-billion.
“We will discuss with China on infrastructural projects on adding value to our products. We will discuss with them to increase their investments in our region,” he said.
Mugabe also sneaked his country’s five-year economic development plan, ZimAsset, into the summit. The conference’s theme was: “SADC strategy for economic transformation – leveraging the region’s diverse resources for sustainable economic and social development through beneficiation and value addition.”
Critics in Zimbabwe’s civil society say this is essentially the plan of ZimAsset and the region cannot be forced to adopt Zimbabwe’s economic plans because the country is years behind the others.
An official who attended the closed session of the summit said that Mugabe put a lot of pressure on President Jacob Zuma to sign the Protocol on Trade in Services, which most other regional leaders signed in 2012. But Zuma and Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba refused to do so, angering Mugabe, who criticised Zuma at a press briefing after the summit.
According to Eldred Masunungure, a University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer, the leaders’ refusal to sign pointed to the fact that Mugabe will not get his way entirely.
“Besides, SADC has certain structures and processes that are institutionalised to a point that they are immune from individual leaders’ personality and whims. I do not see Mugabe being able to imprint his wishes on the organisation because SADC is a collective organisation that operates on the basis of the least common denominator,” he said.
SADC: It is ‘year zero’ for Zimbabwe’s opposition parties
For the first time in seven years, Zimbabwe was not on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit agenda – and it may remain that way for the next year.
With President Robert Mugabe now chairing the 15-member regional body, the opposition parties will find it difficult to push SADC for an audience to complain about Mugabe as they have done in the past. In the past decade the opposition has found a willing audience at the SADC, which called extraordinary summits on Zimbabwe at their behest and forced Mugabe into a unity government. Now Mugabe’s new SADC role may force the country’s fragmented and weak opposition parties to work together or look for new strategies to draw attention to their cause.
Alex Magaisa, a political commentator and former adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai, said the next 12 months under Mugabe at the SADC would be a wasted period for the opposition.
“It is year zero for the opposition. It’s a year of no consequence; a wasted year in which SADC is going through the motions. It’s a year of appeasement of Mugabe and there will be no progress.”
Magaisa said the opposition would have to park their regional mobilisation of leaders until next year when Botswana President Ian Khama takes over as SADC head.
Zimbabwe’s opposition has had some, though limited, success in lobbying SADC. The country’s political and economic crisis has hogged the spotlight at the bloc’s summits. SADC’s mediation efforts led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki in 2008 resulted in a government of national unity – a compromise after a contested election.
But Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change is downplaying the Mugabe effect. Nelson Chamisa, the organising secretary of the MDC, said this week nothing had changed as far as the party was concerned with Mugabe’s rise to lead the regional bloc.
“Mugabe is not SADC, the regional body is bigger than him. He may be the chairperson, but he is not the business of SADC and we will continue to engage SADC as we have always done before,” Chamisa told the Mail & Guardian.
But a splinter of the MDC, MDC Renewal Team, says the rise of Mugabe in the region will not force it to talks with the Tsvangirai group.
“We are already in conversation with other opposition players, but are not prepared to have anything to do with Tsvangirai,” said Elton Mangoma, a senior official in the MDC Renewal Team.
Nhlanhla Dube, a spokesperson of another MDC splinter led by Welshman Ncube, said by making Mugabe its chairperson, it was evident that SADC is comfortable with Mugabe and that Zimbabwe has been removed from the agenda.
“Ultimately only we can save ourselves. The MDC is and has always been ready to work with other democratic forces, including political parties,” Dube said.
Simba Makoni, leader of the Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn and a former SADC executive secretary for a decade, said it’s the MDC that will suffer most as a result of Mugabe’s SADC ascension because other opposition political players had never graced the summits or had audience with regional leaders.
“SADC remains important for regional development, solidarity and dialogue, but SADC was never the correct platform for the grievances that confront the people of Zimbabwe, such as unemployment and poverty.” – Ray Ndlovu