We knew, even before the first vote was cast, that Zimbabwe’s election was marred by serious irregularities. These included, but were certainly not limited to: a partisan electoral commission; 250 000 suspicious entries on the voters roll, including one for a 140-year old man; and state media’s sycophantic coverage of the ruling party.
Reinforcing these concerns was the narrowness of Emmerson Mnangagwa’s margin of victory. The incumbent avoided a run-off election by just 39 000 votes — a gap so small that even minor irregularities may have tipped the balance in the president’s favour.
The aftermath of the vote has done little to allay fears that the election was rigged. The sight of soldiers opening fire on unarmed protesters in Harare belongs in no democracy, while the ongoing purge of opposition leaders — who are being harassed, intimidated and arrested on spurious grounds — is indicative of a regime that is insecure in its power.
So far, so troubling. But perhaps even more troubling has been the unwillingness of the region to speak out on any of these issues. Instead, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and regional superpowers, South Africa and Angola, have been content to rubber-stamp a flawed election and turn a blind eye to the political violence which followed.
Cyril Ramaphosa, South African president and SADC chair at the time, called Mnangagwa four days after the vote to congratulate him on his win, and went no further than expressing “concern” about the violence, in which six people died.
Joao Lourenco, Angolan president and chair of the SADC organ on politics, defence and security cooperation, praised Zimbabweans for conducting themselves in an “exemplary” manner, and urged political leaders to “rise above the unfortunate challenges of the immediate post-election period”. Like Ramaphosa, Lourenco urged Zimbabwe’s opposition leaders to express their grievances through the courts, even though Zimbabwe’s judiciary has long been compromised in favour of the ruling party.
In diplomatic-speak, this is effectively a ringing endorsement of Mnangagwa’s election. According to SADC, there’s nothing to see here.
This is worrying news not just for Zimbabwe, but also for another SADC country heading into a make-or-break election this year: the Democratic Republic of Congo. Originally scheduled for December 2016, Congolese president Joseph Kabila has repeatedly delayed the vote in a transparent effort to keep himself in power.
It is only now, nearly two years later, that Kabila has finally anointed his successor — Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, known more for his loyalty to Kabila than his record in government. It is widely assumed that, should he win, Shadary will serve as a puppet, allowing Kabila to pull the strings even if he has no formal position in government.
But Shadary and Kabila face formidable opposition. Top challengers include the exiled Moise Katumbi, who was recently denied entry back into the country; Felix Tshisekedi, son of the late opposition icon Etienne Tshisekedi; and Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former warlord who returned to Kinshasa earlier this month after his conviction for war crimes was overturned on appeal at The Hague.
There is no doubt that the December 23 election will be a close contest. But Kabila and his placeholder have one major advantage over their rivals: the opportunity to manipulate various state institutions in their favour, including the electoral commission, state media and the the security services.
And, thanks to the recent Zimbabwe example, Kabila can do so knowing that the region will not complain. It will not complain about the irregularities on the voters roll. It will not complain about the use of live ammunition against unarmed civilians. It will not complain when state security agents round up opposition leaders en masse.
In Zimbabwe, SADC once again set the democratic bar distressingly low. Congolese citizens will be the next to face the consequences of its inaction.