Why is SADC slow to intervene in political crises?

Many in Southern Africa are asking why SADC does not intervene in crises in the same way leaders in West Africa do.

In the run-up to their 40th annual summit on 17 August 2020, the leaders of SADC faced a barrage of criticism from citizens over their inaction in response to the region’s problems.

Civil society groups, opposition leaders and commentators are asking why SADC is for the most part silent on crises such as those in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

South Africa’s influential former public protector Thuli Madonsela, for example, asked why SADC was not intervening in Zimbabwe to defuse the conflict in the same way that ECOWAS was in West Africa. ‘If this was ECOWAS, there would long ago have been a meeting with President [Emmerson] Mnangagwa to ask him to explain what is going on,’ Madonsela said in an interview.

‘If this was ECOWAS, there would long ago have been a meeting with President Mnangagwa to ask him to explain what is going on’

ECOWAS heads of state are currently trying to resolve the political crisis in Mali and have often in the past intervened at a high level in places such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia.

Meanwhile, in SADC, almost three years after a devastating insurgency started in northern Mozambique, there are also increasing calls for the regional organisation to act decisively and transparently.

In the DRC, opposition politicians are asking why there has not been a delegation of SADC leaders to mediate in the serious political crisis in that country in the same way ECOWAS is doing in Mali. SADC should be held responsible for the political tension in that country after it intervened to legitimise a flawed election, according to the opposition.

In Malawi, where President Lazarus Chakwera won a rerun of the 2019 elections, which were considered flawed by the country’s own courts, people have little faith in SADC. This is after the organisation rubber-stamped last year’s polls as peaceful and transparent.


SADC, however, is very different from ECOWAS – historically, institutionally and politically.

When commentators in the region criticise SADC, the solidarity between former liberation movements is usually mentioned as the main obstacle in any meaningful engagement to intervene on behalf of citizens of these countries.

The solidarity between former liberation movements is usually mentioned as the main obstacle in any meaningful engagement

This is certainly true in many instances. Ruling parties such as the ANC in South Africa, ZANU PF in Zimbabwe, Frelimo in Mozambique, SWAPO in Namibia and the MPLA in Angola tend to shield one another from interference or criticism. This well-known ‘brotherhood’ – as African heads of state like to describe it – allows some regimes to get away with murder.

This is also where SADC differs from ECOWAS, where the memories of the struggle against colonialism are not as fresh in everyone’s minds as in Southern Africa. Here the links between former liberation movements remain strong.

However, SADC is also hamstrung by a number of institutional obstacles. Going forward, institutional reforms could give it a greater political role.

Firstly, it has a fairly weak secretariat, with very few decision-making powers compared to the ECOWAS Commission. The latter has a bigger budget and arguably more capacity than SADC to carry out its programmes independently of member states. Member states have not considered it in their interests to strengthen the SADC Secretariat.

The SADC Secretariat and its executive secretary also rarely speak out on controversial issues. This is left to member states. Yet member states only meet once a year and if the chair of the organisation is not engaged in issues – or too implicated, which might be the case with Mozambique, the new SADC chair for 2020/2021 – nothing happens.

It has to be said that ECOWAS is not faultless in this regard – whether it communicates effectively depends on the personality and strength of the chairperson of the ECOWAS Commission.

Inadequate conflict-prevention mechanisms

Secondly, when it comes to intervening in crises, SADC is hamstrung by a complicated system that dates back to a time before South Africa joined the then Southern African Development Coordination Conference in 1992.

Any political issues are handled by the  troika of the Organ on Defence, Politics and Security, which in the past year has been led by Mnangagwa. This is distinct from the troika of current, previous and upcoming chairs of SADC.

This rotating so-called ‘double troika’ system might be more inclusive – with six heads of state serving in leadership positions at any given time – but it is often misunderstood by the general public and creates confusion. Some in SADC have called for reforms to the double troika system.

These rotating positions are also rarely occupied by the leaders of smaller and newcomer states such as Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles or the Comoros.

Following the August 17 summit, SADC will be headed by Mozambique’s Filipe Nyusi and Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi will lead the organ.

Lack of trust in SADC by ordinary citizens

Thirdly, the fact that SADC does not have institutions that properly represent citizens is a huge obstacle to decisive action and buy-in from ordinary people in the region. For example, citizens in SADC cannot turn to a tribunal when they feel wronged by their own governments, as citizens in West Africa can turn to the ECOWAS Court of Justice. The SADC tribunal was dissolved in 2012 following pressure from Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.

That SADC does not have institutions that properly represent citizens is a huge obstacle to decisive action and buy-in from ordinary people in the region

It is crucial to re-instate the tribunal with full powers to hear complaints from SADC citizens. 

SADC also does not have a regional parliament. It only has a Parliamentary Forum with no legislative powers. Frequent requests have been made to upgrade the forum to a fully-fledged parliament, but this has still not happened. Such a move could improve the relationship between people and the regional organisation.

However, as seen with the pan-African parliament, such a body would need to be properly representative of the entire political landscape and have a high profile in order to play a meaningful role.

Generally, ECOWAS also has stronger links with non-governmental organisations and civil society than SADC does.

SADC observer missions

Fourthly, the structure of election observation missions, which are often made up of government officials with little civil society participation, has in the past undermined the credibility of these missions. This is often the only time citizens actually see SADC at work in their own countries – when vehicles with the SADC logo and officials with flap jackets do the rounds at election time.

Incidents such as those in Malawi last year and the many controversial statements by SADC on elections in Zimbabwe have not ingratiated SADC with the people of those countries, or the opposition.

On this score, ECOWAS and other regional economic communities are not without fault either, having over the years rubber-stamped many elections that were considered deeply compromised. 

Finally, the fact that many resolutions are adopted and not implemented also undermines people’s faith in SADC. For example, in ECOWAS, a citizen of a member state can travel fairly freely with an ECOWAS passport across the 15 member states of the organisation – barring harassment by corrupt officials at borders.

For most SADC citizens, especially those from outlier countries such as Madagascar, there is no such luxury. While free movement across borders might be possible for some, working and living in another member state owing to your regional status is still a pipe dream.

SADC has over the years claimed important milestones in improving regional integration and ensuring greater synergy between policies in member states – from gender representation in politics to infrastructure and border management. It has also attempted to coordinate responses to COVID-19 by ensuring freight transport can move across the region.

People living in conflict-ridden countries and those experiencing bad governance, however, will continue to hope for reforms that facilitate greater intervention and a principled stance by SADC.

Photo: GovernmentZA/Flickr

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