Editorial: Shout a bit louder, SADC

In January 2016, when it became clear that Gambian president Yahya Jammeh was intent on clinging to power, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) took decisive action.

Regional heads of state made several visits to The Gambia’s capital, Banjul, in an attempt to cajole Jammeh into stepping down. A military standby force was mustered on the Gambian border to give the diplomacy some teeth. In no uncertain terms, the region made their position clear: Jammeh must go. In so doing, Ecowas put the principle of democratic governance ahead of fealty to an ageing dictator, and played its role in ensuring a peaceful transition.

In contrast, the inaction of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) over Zimbabwe is remarkable — but not surprising. For years, inspired by Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” doctrine, SADC has turned a blind eye to Robert Mugabe’s abuses of Zimbabwe’s Constitution.

Instead of safeguarding Zimbabwe’s democracy, SADC repeatedly rubber-stamped Mugabe’s regime — most notably in its tepid responses to the contested elections of 2008 and 2013. Another low point was the collapse of the regional court, the SADC Tribunal, following a ruling made against Zimbabwe in 2008.

And so, when the tide finally turned against Mugabe, SADC found itself unable to make a meaningful contribution. Efforts to organise an “extraordinary summit” were mocked by many Zimbabweans, who remember the futility of previous such summits, while the slow pace of a proposed diplomatic intervention was overtaken by events on the ground.

Nonetheless, as Zimbabwe creates its post-Mugabe future, there is still time for SADC to learn from its mistakes, and encourage the values of freedom, economic wellbeing and social justice — values that, in its strategic vision, it claims to espouse.

But if SADC leaders really believe in these values, they are going to have to shout a little louder. Continued inaction risks sending the opposite message.

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