Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe at the weekend assumed chairmanship of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Next year he will assume a similar position with the African Union.
For many this is a welcome development, after 12 or so years in diplomatic wilderness, Zimbabwe is now finding its way in from the cold.
Mugabe’s supporters, believe this is an affirmation by SADC of his stature, while the triumphalist among us see this as a slap in the face of Britain and the west, whom Zimbabwe has been engaged in diplomatic tiffs – real and imagined – with over the last 13 odd years.
After the land takeovers of the last decade, Zimbabwe was shunted, from being a regional player into a regional agenda item, whose problems cause SADC a lot of nightmares resulting in several conferences.
Not taking away anything from Mugabe’s ascension, this chairpersonship raises quite critical and fundamental questions about SADC and regional initiatives in upholding democracy
The same SADC made several recommendations on Zimbabwe, which Mugabe and his party violated or ignored, during the regional body’s initiative, and now that Mugabe is chairman, Zimbabwe’s unresolved human rights question will remain just that, unresolved.
SADC mediated the Zimbabwe crisis over the past 10 years and did well in parts, but in others they found Zanu PF obstinate and unwilling to make changes, even if it was in clear violation of democratic and human rights tenets.
It is telling that as Mugabe took over the post, one of his closest lieutenants was taking over a farm, allegedly in violation of a court order. While we had the SADC tribunal in the past, which dealt with such issues, Zimbabwe made sure that the tribunal was rendered useless and can no longer adjudicate in such matters.
A middle finger to regional justice, if you like.
And there’s the issue of countries like Swaziland. From a regional perspective, there is little that SADC can do to bring SADC in line with regional human rights standards. As chair of the regional grouping, will Zimbabwe be able to point out the speck in Swaziland’s human rights eye?
Questions will always be raised about Zimbabwe being at the helm of SADC, but if anything else, this is a huge propaganda victory for the Zimbabwean government and the ruling party, Zanu PF.
It is a slap in the face for human rights activists and opposition parties, who had found in SADC, clearly a paper tiger, at least a willing listener and sometimes a sympathetic ear. SADC provided at least a degree of regional peer review, but now that avenue may as well as be shut.