Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is set to take the reins at this weekend’s Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Victoria Falls when he assumes the chair of the 15-member regional group.
His elevation – having served as SADC deputy chair since last year – could mark a turning point in the often sour relations between him and SADC member states. The relationship between Mugabe and the body in the past decade of Zimbabwe’s worsening political and economic fortunes have made relations far from cosy.
The Zanu-PF strongman (90) has been pressed to solve the crises that have seen Zimbabweans streaming into neighbouring countries. Member states’ efforts to restore Zimbabwe to its glory days have been received with scorn by human rights groups who accuse them of treating Mugabe with kid gloves when he flouts governance standards.
It also appears that Mugabe has outmanoeuvred the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has consistently drawn SADC’s attention to the government’s failure to enact political reforms. Though the MDC had the ear of the bloc during the five-year unity government, any common ground has now shifted.
MDC organising secretary Nelson Chamisa told the Mail & Guardian this week that SADC still had internal obstacles to overcome and Mugabe’s ascension in its ranks would complicate its position and affect its integrity.
“SADC still has a lot of challenges and these include the reform of institutions, good governance and the upliftment of the lives of the people in the region,” said Chamisa.
He said the bloc was still struggling to enforce the rule of law and good governance in Zimbabwe, adding that “one cannot choose a chief criminal to become the police commissioner”.
The endorsement of the Zimbabwe election last year by the bloc’s observer mission as “free, peaceful and generally credible” dashed the MDC’s hopes of a reversal of the election results.
Chamisa said: “The result of the election is still fresh in the minds of not only the people of Zimbabwe, but [also] the SADC leaders, who are aware that the situation is getting out of hand. South Africa is grappling with how to deal with the permits issue and Botswana with an influx of Zimbabweans.”
On Thursday the Harare-based Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the country’s deteriorating human rights record.
“SADC’s commitment to human rights will come into question if Zimbabwe, as chair of the regional body, does not expedite the process of aligning its laws with the Constitution and state institutions do not live up to the regional and international best practices,” said ZLHR projects manager Dzimbabwe Chimbga.
Southern African Amnesty International director Deprose Muchena said SADC should strive to create conditions for economic, social, civil and political rights and the bloc leadership must respond to the real needs of ordinary people and implement regional and international human rights standards.
Despite the difficulties Mugabe has had with SADC in the past, Zimbabwe has gone all out make the summit in Victoria Falls a memorable one and hotels and lodges in the resort town are fully booked.
It also appears certain that Mugabe will seek to enjoy every moment of his year-long stint at the helm and will probably trumpet his rehabilitation to his opponents in the West.
In the limelight
Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi this week predicted that Mugabe would hog the limelight on regional affairs for some time to come.
“From August all SADC meetings, from heads of state and government to inter-ministerial meetings and other sectors, will be hosted by Zimbabwe.
“Mugabe as chairperson will lead the region for one year to August 2015. He will also remain in the regional bloc’s leadership as a member of the SADC troika in his capacity as outgoing chairperson up to August 2016.”
The 34th summit is set to be held under the theme “SADC strategy for economic transformation: leveraging the region’s diverse resources for sustainable economic and social development through beneficiation and value addition”.
Political commentator Mmeli Dube said Mugabe would use his year at the helm to heal the rift he has had with the region and was unlikely to push for radical transformation.
“He will continue to grandstand to just keep his ego intact … as he cannot get much support from a region that has so much to lose if they follow the Zimbabwean example of indigenisation and land seizures,” said Dube.
“His government is bankrupt because of radical policies and all his SADC colleagues know it. He can only go as far as speaking radically from the podium to keep his admirers, but realistically he will very much have to tone down his rhetoric.”
• August 16 2008: Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders hold talks with President Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai at a SADC summit in Johannesburg to broker a power-sharing agreement following the disputed outcome of the March 2008 elections.
• September 15 2008: The power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai is signed in Harare. It was brokered by former South African president Thabo Mbeki.
• October 16 2008: SADC acknowledges that it believes concerns that Mugabe should not be recognised as Zimbabwe’s head of state are “legitimate” – but rejects the demand to bar Mugabe from participating in future SADC activities.
• January 26 2009: SADC and Mugabe’s Zanu-PF claim that the new government, including Tsvangirai, will be sworn in on February 11 2009. The MDC disputes this.
• August 16 2010: SADC leaders give Mugabe one month to implement all outstanding reforms outlined in the Global Political Agreement he signed with Tsvangirai.
• March 27 2011: A heated SADC summit is held in Zambia, where regional leaders call for political reform in Zimbabwe.
• June 1 2012: A SADC troika meeting in Luanda, Angola, resolves that Zimbabwe should hold elections in 12 months’ time and only after the completion of all outstanding political reforms. This is a blow to Mugabe, who had been pushing for early polls.
• June 15 2013: At the SADC summit in Mozambique, South African President Jacob Zuma delivers a progress report on the implementation of the Global Political Agreement.
• August 18 2013: Tsvangirai chooses to skip the SADC summit in Malawi. The summit picks Mugabe as SADC deputy chairperson.
• August 18 2014: The outgoing SADC chairperson, Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika, hands over to the new chair, Mugabe, at the 34th SADC summit held in Zimbabwe. – Ray Ndlovu