Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections are fast becoming less a test of President Robert Mugabe's credibility, which is already in tatters, but that of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, the region's premier political grouping.
The 14-nation organisation expended energy six months ago drafting guidelines for free and fair elections at a summit in Mauritius, a document that won worldwide acclaim.
It was even signed by President Mugabe. Yet the SADC is showing a painful lack of political will to apply it in Zimbabwe.
The organisation has all the teeth it needs to enforce compliance. The guidelines are embedded in the 1992 SADC Treaty and are binding on member countries.
Sanctions can be applied against a member country which violates the guidelines or "implements policies which undermine the principles and objectives of SADC".
Zimbabwe has done both, yet SADC remains silent and Mugabe continues to treat the guidelines with contempt.
A little real pressure - such as a stern warning that unless the guidelines are complied with, the SADC observer team will have to declare the elections illegitimate - would surely have brought Mugabe to heel. He may not give a damn about condemnation from British prime minister Tony Blair, United States president George Bush or the European Union, but he certainly would not want to be censured by his fellow Africans.
Of course, any such warning would have to carry a credible threat of implementation – and this is where SADC falls down. Mugabe counts on his regional partners not having the stomach to act against him, and so he leads them a merry dance.
In the end, it is SADC more than the Zimbabwean leader that will pay the price in terms of lost credibility in the developed world, where it has an important role to play in negotiating a better deal for the struggling nations of Africa.
South African president Thabo Mbeki's doctrine of delivering good governance in Africa in exchange for better trading opportunities in the developed world will be the prime victim.
Incredibly, Mbeki has provoked astonishment and anger by saying Zimbabwe's March 31 elections - already heavily rigged by Mugabe - will be free and fair.
Pius Ncube, the outspoken Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, has observed that Mbeki "would be booed in the streets" if he was to speak to Zimbabwe's ordinary people and ask them what they thought about his view of their country.
The archbishop, who said he had refused an offer from Mugabe of a confiscated white farm in exchange for keeping silent, said, "The people don't know why Mbeki is supporting Mugabe. They don't understand it. The people of Zimbabwe have no respect for Mbeki."
By contrast, Zwelinzima Vavi, the leader of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Cosatu - the key partner of Mbeki's ruling African National Congress - has said it is already too late to save Zimbabwe's electoral process, and that the political dice are so irretrievably stacked against the opposition that, with only three weeks to go, the election cannot possibly be free and fair.
And George Bizos, the renowned South African human rights lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia trial 40 years ago, said in a recent interview in London, "Mr Mugabe would like this election to be certified as free and fair in the hope of getting some relief from the terrible situation which he has led his country to.
“I don't think that he should get such a certificate, because in order to have a free and fair election you have to have the rule of law, an impartial and independent judiciary…, prosecuting authority and competent police force. None of these things exist, nor can they be put in place before election day."
In a recent radio interview, Mbeki spoke positively about the appointment of an independent electoral commission in Zimbabwe. He also expressed confidence that an SADC observer team would be invited to the country, as required by SADC guidelines. His foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said she also believed the elections would be free and fair, and pointed out that President Mugabe had called for a violence-free election.
There are gaping holes in these assertions. Mugabe's call for a peaceful election is meaningless, since it is his government that instigated the violent repression of opponents which has been going on for years. The ZANU PF youth militia - the so-called Green Bombers - along with the police and army, are still intimidating and beating up opposition supporters, while the government is blatantly using food distribution in the starving rural areas to secure support for the ruling party.
Free electioneering is impossible. Under the notorious Public Order and Security Act - resembling similar repressive legislation in the old apartheid South Africa - the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, must apply for police permission to hold meetings, and this is frequently turned down.
Nor does the opposition have fair access to the state-owned media, as SADC guidelines require. When the MDC launched its election campaign it was, for the first time, given airtime on state television in the form of a four-minute report. But this was immediately followed by a two-hour interview with President Mugabe. State-owned newspapers - and so serious has been the crackdown on the media that there is no longer an independent daily press - refuse to accept paid MDC election advertisements while publishing reams of free ZANU PF propaganda.
The most important independent newspaper, the Daily News, remains banned. The Supreme Court was to deliver judgement on an appeal against the ban on February 7, and rumour has it the ruling is in the paper's favour, but nothing has yet appeared.
Last month, three leading Zimbabwe-based journalists - Jan Raath, Angus Shaw and Brian Latham - fled the country after heavy-handed police raids and the seizure of their equipment.
As for the "independent" electoral body, it is nothing of the sort. The opposition was presented with a short-list of candidates, none of whom was acceptable to them. "All we could do was choose the least bad," they said. To cap that, the president made one of his most controversial appointments by naming a judge who is one of his loyalists to chair the election commission.
Moreover, and crucially, this new commission is pure window-dressing. It is not the supreme body in charge of the election, but is subordinate to another body, the Electoral Supervisory Commission, made up entirely of staunch ZANU PF loyalists.
But worst of all is the absence of independent observer teams to take note of these delinquencies and to pressure the Mugabe government into complying with SADC guidelines. Observer teams from Britain, the Commonwealth, the US and the EU have been banned by Mugabe. The SADC's own observer team should have been allowed into the country 90 days before polling day, but it is yet to arrive.
The reason for all this obfuscation is blindingly obvious. The critical rigging is being done in advance and the regime wants no truly independent observers around to see what is happening. Carefully selected observers will be allowed in only once the nefarious work is completed.
Will these observers ignore what went on prior to their arrival, and blandly proclaim the election to have been free and fair? That is what the Mugabe regime is counting on them doing. It will be a travesty if they play ball.
As for the SADC, any such connivance would be a monumental blunder. Its reputation is far more important in the southern Africa region than any futile attempt to save face for Mugabe. It needs to speak up and show that it has the courage of its own stated principles.
Allister Sparks is a distinguished author and international prize-winning journalist, who was editor of the Rand Daily Mail before becoming Africa correspondent of the Washington Post and the London Observer.
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