THE Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) statement on the regional bloc’s final report on elections is out. The verdict is now fully established; the elections according to SADC were “free, peaceful and generally credible”.
That endorsement also translates to an unconditional acceptance of President Robert Mugabe’s new five-year tenure.
I don’t think anyone expected anything different from the position that SADC took in its preliminary report, released immediately after voting on August 2.
This was further buoyed by the endorsement from SADC Heads of States and governments summit in Malawi on August 18, where President Mugabe was then elected to be vice chairperson of the regional bloc.
Botswana, which had earlier asked for an audit of the elections, eventually joined in the regional chorus in Malawi and accepted the outcome of the elections.
In looking back at the Zimbabwe elections and the position of SADC, one cannot ignore the convolutions of regional politics and security.
Regional politico-security is one of the key anchors of how decisions in the Zimbabwean election were made and this demonstrated the centrality of such matters in the region.
SADC is not merely driven by open-ended principles and propositions. These must find location in the regional politico-security matrix if they are to have any traction.
This politico-security matrix cannot also be understood from a vacuum. Rather it is built from the historical perspectives that are so pregnant with liberation history.
At one point, around 2011, South African President Jacob Zuma, who was facilitator of the Zimbabwe mediation process, seemed to have gained courage to placate the region out of its compelling historical influence.
He, at a meeting held in Livingstone, Zambia, was the first to be openly critical of President Mugabe intransigence on the implementation of the Global Political Agreement (GPA).
Zuma’s direct confrontation with President Mugabe was significant because it defied the contemporary way of politics in SADC.
Firstly, SADC had never been known to be confrontational with a sitting Head of State, no matter how much they toed out of line.
Secondly, President Mugabe, considered as the political father figure in the region, had up to then never been politically challenged. The only attempt had been made by Nelson Mandela when he was president of South Africa in the late 1990s. He and President Mugabe openly clashed on the structure, composition and mandate of the newly created Organ for Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation.
Thirdly, the internal matters of member states had always been considered to be sacrosanct and fully submissive to the sovereignty clause of the SADC Treaty – never to be openly interfered with.
Some saw Zuma’s stance at the SADC Livingstone meeting as a new shift and a change of political paradigm in the region. This seemed to herald the evolution of a new way of politics in the region, able to untangle historical incapacities and sensitivities.
The Zimbabwe election was a major test of this shift in SADC approach and position. Given all the irregularities that characterised the elections, the new SADC approach as propounded by Zuma’s confrontational approach to President Mugabe, should have found traction in condemning this election.
We even hear that within the SADC observer mission there were major differences and a split along country lines. There was a bloc of countries that wanted to take a very critical position on the Zimbabwe elections.
There was a second group that wanted to take a position that would allow continuation of the coalition and power-sharing government. Then there was another group that wanted to a take a position in defence of ZANU-PF and President Mugabe’s win, as a way of ultimately endorsing a return to their political dominance in the region.
Ultimately, all these groupings agreed to provide a very mild preliminary statement, and then wait for the Heads of States and governments summit in Malawi to proffer the decisive direction on Zimbabwe elections. The endorsement from the summit then settled matters.
How on earth did the three varying positions evolve into one congruent and resolute position? What factors affected the SADC position?
The SADC position was influenced by what many have referred to as the regional security position. The region is considered to be very sensitive to security issues, especially with impression of emerging instability.
In Mozambique, RENAMO is once again on the upsurge — having caused some level of instability in the country very close to its borders with Zimbabwe.
In Angola there is rising suspicion that the rebel activity in Cabinda region will likely rise in the coming few years.
The instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues unabated. Botswana’s close military links with the United States which at one time raised suspicion of the Africom base being set up in this SADC country is also a fresh and sensitive issue in the region.
All these cases made the Zimbabwe election central to the security concerns in the region.
Perceptions in the political corridors in the region are that, Western powers are likely to take some role or have already done so in these conflicts, as has happened in the past.
There is a school of thought that says that in the southern African region, the West has lost the socio-economic and political battle to the Chinese. In that regard, the backlash of the western powers cannot be overt but will rather be through subtle means.
One such way maybe by reverting back to their direct or indirect historical support for movements like RENAMO, UNITA and other such forces that may arise in the region
The current instability in the DRC is also largely seen as a result of the West’s historical involvement in that country.
Given that background, there is a group of very strong-headed SADC regional leaders who are arguing that the region is once again under a new threat of Western interference and destabilisation.
Their regional priority is security issues and their preference is building a lineage of regional leaders able to resist and stand against this new wave of perceived Western offensive.
This is exactly where President Mugabe’s eminence in the region has suddenly resurfaced. I should hasten to highlight that, it is not all of the regional leaders who have this frame of thinking and perception, but those that do have such a compelling effect in how SADC should proceed.
President Mugabe is seen as a relevant cog in the new politico-security dynamics in the region. His sustained leadership of Zimbabwe is a guarantee to other regional leaders of bounteous resistance to this evolving threat.
This is also against the background of other regional leaders’ suspicion of Tsvangirai’s warm relations with the West. That could have been the most emphatic nail in the coffin that buried Tsvangirai’s hopes of SADC support in the past election
His perceived cordial interactions with the West were also considered in a scenario of him having won the elections. Should that have happened, then the strong-headed regional leaders I mentioned earlier feared Zimbabwe turning from being the cornerstone against Western regional security threats to a launch pad against regional security.
Politics is nearly always about perceptions.
For the Zimbabwean elections, regional perception could have plaid a central and key role.
SADC’s surprising withdrawal from insisting on reforms before the elections; its acceptance to hold elections under conditions that were not so conducive; the regional bloc’s congelation into a unanimous decision to endorse the election without much reservation; President Mugabe’s elevation to vice chairperson of the regional bloc and the emphatic call against sanctions on Zimbabwe — all indicate the influence of a head-strong group of regional leaders, whose priority in the Zimbabwe election was not “freeness and fairness” but rather, implications for regional security.
The security question may not have been the only sway on SADC’s position, but it’s one of those that is not so much in the public domain but contributed much to the eventuality.
The Zimbabwe election was not only about domestic democratisation processes, it was also about regional security concerns, whether justified or not, real or perceived.