One step backwards

2014-08-21

Was Mozambican President Armando Guebuza being just a tad ironic and mischievous when he congratulated Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on his political longevity at this week’s Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Victoria Falls?

Or was it just projection between sentimental constitutional democrats, desperately seeking meaning in yet another uninspiring gathering of this listless organisation?

‘We are coming to the end of our tenure as the president of Mozambique, and will hand over the baton to a new leader on October 15,’ said Guebuza, a youthful 71. He is obliged to stand down after serving the maximum number of two presidential terms, as stipulated by his country’s constitution. ‘We are grateful to President Robert Mugabe, who is the only leader who has attended all 34 SADC summits since 1 April 1980.’

Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba likewise bid farewell to his peers, as he has also reached his constitutional expiry date and will hand over to a successor after imminent elections.

Perhaps the likes of Guebuza really do admire the 90-year-old Mugabe for his staying power and feel nostalgic for the good old days of unfettered and interminable rule, which he exemplifies. Mugabe, 90, for whom term limits are surely a neo-imperialist plot to effect regime change, had just manoeuvred his 49-year-old wife Grace into the presidency of Zanu-PF women’s league. This is apparently to position her to succeed him if he dies in office – or at least to protect him and his family interests by keeping his enemies at bay.

Perhaps the likes of Guebuza really do admire the 90-year-old Mugabe for his staying power

Mugabe was in his usual fine, indestructible spirits as host of the summit, using the chair to admonish President Jacob Zuma and South Africa for what he implied was some sort of economic neo-colonialism. Zuma, like Pohamba, had refused to sign a draft protocol on trade in services within the SADC region, apparently for technical reasons.

Mugabe told a press conference after the summit that he had appealed to Zuma to sign the protocol. ‘We also appealed to South Africa, which is highly industrialised, to lead us in this and work with us, and cooperate with us and not just regard the whole continent as an open market for products from South Africa,’ said Mugabe. ‘We want a reciprocal relationship where we sell to each other and not just receive products from one source.’

South Africa evidently also frustrated Mugabe by declining to go along with a proposal for a SADC regional development fund. South African officials were suspicious that severely cash-strapped Zimbabwe, in particular, wanted to tap the fund as a sort of local International Monetary Fund to provide it with budget support, whereas South Africa’s notion is that it should, if anything, finance regional infrastructure.

Some commentators – including Mugabe’s former cabinet minister, Simba Makoni – were critical of Mugabe for abusing his position as host to try to hijack the summit by stamping a Zanu-PF imprimatur on the summit theme, which was: ‘SADC Strategy for Economic Transformation: Leveraging the Region’s Diverse Resources for Sustainable Economic and Social Development through Value Addition and Beneficiation.’

As expected, the summit adopted a draft protocol on the SADC Tribunal, which neutered the court

Makoni and others expressed concern before the summit that the similarity of this theme to Zanu-PF’s own Agenda for Sustainable Socio-economic Transformation (Zim Asset) might lead to SADC being hoodwinked into also taking on board Zanu-PF’s means to that end. This includes indigenisation of business and nationalisation of natural resources.

The summit did decide that ‘industrialisation should take centre stage in SADC’s regional integration agenda,’ as the communiqué said. But there were no indications that this would ever be much more than the usual rhetorical flourish.

On political issues, the summit endorsed the decision taken in July by ministers of SADC and the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) that the armed rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo should be given six months to surrender before facing military action by United Nations peacekeepers, bolstered by SADC troops.

This decision to give the FDLR six months’ grace is becoming increasingly contentious. The FDLR is showing no real signs of an intention to lay down arms, while its arch-enemy, Rwanda, is agitating for it to be defeated militarily.

On Lesotho, the summit decided not to pass on the chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security from Namibia to Lesotho, as scheduled, but to give it to South Africa instead.

That was evidently because Lesotho is, at least implicitly, on the Organ’s agenda as a result of the turmoil within its ruling coalition, which led Prime Minister Tom Thabane to suspend Parliament until next year to pre-empt a vote of no confidence against him. There had been expectations that the summit would decide that the coalition needed outside facilitation to resolve this impasse, but the communiqué, at least, suggested that the Basotho political leaders were being left to resolve this themselves.

And, as expected, the summit adopted a draft protocol on the SADC Tribunal, which ‘neutered’ the court by stripping it of its real power – which is to hear complaints by SADC citizens against their own governments. Instead, it will be reduced to hearing only disputes between SADC member states, even though, as the boundary dispute between Malawi and Tanzania suggests, they don’t seem interested in calling on its services.

And so, in the end, it was worse than just ‘another hollow summit,’ as one newspaper headline put it. It was another step backwards for the rule of law.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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