Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comrades in Arms

Southern African leaders still remain close to Mugabe.
By IWPR Srdan
The regional response to the situation in Zimbabwe has been "shameless", according to a leading Harare-based human rights activist.

Brian Kagoro Chairman of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a steering group of local NGOs and trade unions, has criticised leaders of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, for turning their back on his country and failing to speak out against the government of President Robert Mugabe.

But other independent figures based here believe that the complex nature of SADC-Zimbabwe relations do not realistically allow for an unequivocal regional response based on moral grounds.

The crisis in Zimbabwe has manifested itself in government-led acts of political violence and the general collapse of an economy once the envy of Africa. According to the coalition, which collectively claims to represent more than 500 local civil society groups, there have been more than 630,000 cases of serious human rights abuses reported over the last four years. They include 180 instances of politically-related killings.

Records kept by the coalition date back to February 2000 when President Mugabe lost the national plebiscite he hoped would endorse a new constitution that would have further strengthened his 20-year grip on power.

And two years later, organisations observing the presidential election - from the Commonwealth through to Transparency International - concluded that Mugabe had effectively stolen it from Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement For Democratic Change, MDC.

But SADC endorsed the result - a move heavily criticised by those who expected it to tighten the screws on Mugabe, such as introducing a trade embargo. Zimbabwe sits right at the heart of the southern African subcontinent and is the nerve centre of regional trade because of its relatively developed infrastructure.

South Africa is Zimbabwe's biggest trade partner in the region and its trade routes to countries in the north such as Zambia, the DRC and Angola, pass through Zimbabwe. South Africa could have then been the bigger loser had it put in place an embargo.

But to mention sanctions is to misunderstand the mandate of SADC, according to Heneri Dzinotyiweyi, a political analyst and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Zimbabwe. "We must understand that SADC is not a legislative body but simply a facilitator that gives member states general guidelines aimed to quicken development," he told IWPR.

And Thomas Deve, chairman of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Zimbabwe, argues that there was no way SADC leaders would have taken a stance against Mugabe given they are similarly faced with post-colonial problems such as land-reform.

"The MDC and the western media underestimated the legitimacy of the land reform programme which the SADC leadership understood only too well," he said.

According to Dzinotyiweyi, SADC's response to the situation in Zimbabwe can only really be understood in the context of the country's fight for independence. As the Liberation War intensified in the Seventies, the countries which subsequently formed SADC were known as the Frontline States and were used as bases to fight the regime of Ian Smith as well as launch the struggle against apartheid in both South Africa and Namibia.

Given the mindset of any SADC leader says Dzinotyiweyi, to come out against Mugabe would mean "straying horribly from the line established by luminaries of pan-African liberation struggle such as [former Tanzanian president] Julius Nyerere".

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni perhaps summed up the prevailing African position on Mugabe during a recent visit to Harare when he attacked western leaders and media for their criticisms of Mugabe, "When I hear these people I say you can't demonise a leader of the liberation struggle and expect support from us, you are just stupid," he said.

Mugabe's confrontational response to western criticisms has impressed an African continent which sees the West through the prism of continuing interference in the political process, via its support for oppositional parties and the occasional coup. For the first time, Africans saw a leader standing up against the old colonial powers. Rightly or wrongly, the western media too have been criticised for perceived racial overtones in their reporting -particularly on the suffering of white landowners in Zimbabwe.

"The western media and its allies in South Africa are mostly rightwing and have the capacity to influence political opinion. Daggers had already been drawn against other southern African leaders causing them to take a united stand," said Deve.

Efforts were already being made to deny South African president Thabo Mbeki a second term in office by amplifying his response to the AIDS epidemic seen as a great weakness of leadership. Criticism of Namibia's Sam Nujoma was also increasing because it was thought he could import wholesale Mugabe's violent land reform model.

Alongside the solidarity sound bites, it is probably true that SADC leaders' continuing support for the Zimbabwean president is at least in part led by a fear of who among them might be next were Mugabe to be removed from power. But there are also the personal relationships to consider: Mozambique remains highly indebted to Mugabe for helping it win the war against the insurgent Mozambique National Resistance, Renamo, in the 1980s. Mozambique's president Joachim Chissano was best man at Mugabe's second wedding in 1996.

The regimes of father and son Laurent and Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo meantime have been substantially supported by the Zimbabwean army. The young president still sees Mugabe as his mentor.

But it now seems the SADC may now finally be involved in intensive behind-the-scenes manoeuvring to bring change to Zimbabwe. Late last month, Mbeki said he will jump on a plane and "do whatever it takes" to help resolve the crisis in Harare. The recent heads of state and government summit held in Mauritius is evidence of this. Realising the contentious issue in Zimbabwe was the running of elections, the SADC leadership put out its so-called Protocol on Elections. It sets minimum conditions for the holding of elections in the region and seems almost tailor-made to put Mugabe in a fix. Already in full page adverts entitled "SADC Watch", carried by Zimbabwe's private newspapers, the MDC appears to be taking great delight in showing readers how the government is so far continuing to break each and every principle set down in Mauritius.

"While SADC protocols are not binding this one is a positive step forward and sets a significant basis and terms of reference from which useful comparisons can be made to drive change," said Dzinotyiweyi.

The names of some contributors in this package of stories have been withheld out of concern for their safety.