Southern Africa in crisis: SADC’s interventions are mostly too little – and too late

Images and videos of murder, torture, beatings, torchings and other violence in Eswatini have emerged, showing a kingdom where human rights do not exist. (Photo: Supplied)

It’s high time the Southern African Development Community intervenes earlier to pre-empt crises.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Southern Africa has long prided itself on being the most stable, peaceful region on the continent. But that complacency has been rattled recently. First Islamic State-linked violent extremism visited the region in the form of a bloody insurgency that erupted in Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado in October 2017, which still rages on.

The southern neighbourhood was shocked to witness on its own doorstep scenes of mayhem previously confined to east Africa, west Africa and the Sahel; of civilians and soldiers beheaded or shot by fanatical jihadists, whole towns falling to the insurgents and tens of thousands of people being forced to flee for their lives as refugees.

And then over the past few weeks Eswatini, long regarded by the region rather indulgently as a sort of fairly innocuous theme park of anachronistic monarchical rule, exploded into severe violence in which security forces killed at least 52 people, according to the opposition.

Pictures of protesters shot or otherwise attacked and mutilated were published on social media and verified by Daily Maverick. And billions of rands of destruction was wrought by protesters on assets such as supermarkets, government offices and delivery vehicles.

The region has been forced to sit up and take notice. That includes the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the intergovernmental organisation of 16 southern African states, which is not renowned for its activism in pre-empting violent eruptions by addressing early warning signs of looming conflict as it is supposed to do.

Severe violence has exploded in Eswatini. (Photo: Supplied)

The SADC has mostly turned a blind eye to stolen elections and other political abuses in member states such as Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Mozambique and Eswatini, even though those abuses are formally recognised in SADC’s own doctrines and systems as potential precursors of greater violence.

In an article last year Liesl Louw-Vaudran, senior researcher and head of the SADC project at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), sharply contrasted the SADC’s relative inertia with the activism of its counterpart, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), whose heads of state were then trying to resolve the political crisis in Mali and had previously intervened in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Gambia.

Louw-Vaudran cited former public protector Thuli Madonsela, for example, asking why SADC wasn’t taking steps to defuse Zimbabwe’s conflict in the same way 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,” she quoted Madonsela telling the SABC.

What Madonsela probably had in mind in particular was Operation Restore Democracy, when Ecowas sent a military force to Gambia in January 2017 to force that country’s president, Yahya Jammeh, to surrender power after he had lost elections but had refused to leave office.

It was then, and continues to remain, unthinkable that the SADC would intervene militarily to unseat an incumbent leader, in large part because at its core it has become a club of former liberation movements that have clung to power since independence and have no desire to relinquish it.

Apart from watching each other’s backs, this ethos of the former liberation movements – Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF, Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi, Angola’s MPLA, Mozambique’s Frelimo, Namibia’s Swapo and South Africa’s ANC – makes it hard for SADC to object to undemocratic behaviour in other member states such as Zambia, where President Edgar Lungu is shrinking the democratic space.

Mozambique army soldiers patrol the streets of Palma, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, on 12 April 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / JOAO RELVAS)

In her report, Louw-Vaudran also mentioned the SADC’s inertia over the preceding three years in dealing with the rapidly rising insurgency in Mozambique.

Since then a devastating attack by the Al Sunnah wa Jama (ASWJ) jihadists (also locally known as al-Shabaab) on the town of Palma in March this year forced the French energy giant, Total, to suspend its liquid natural gas processing plant at nearby Afungi, jeopardising a $60-billion project on which Mozambique is depending to lift its people out of poverty.

The Palma attack, in which a South African contractor was killed and which shut down several South African businesses subcontracted to Total, at last forced SADC to apply its mind to the insurgency.

In June, SADC leaders agreed at a summit in Maputo to deploy a military intervention to Cabo Delgado to help the struggling Mozambique security forces to defeat al-Shabaab and expel it from the territories it controls, such as the port town of Mocimboa da Praia.

Whether the proposed force will eventually deploy remains in some doubt, though, as Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi still seems to prefer other options such as accepting an offer of Rwandan troops to tackle the insurgents.

Violence and bloodshed similarly seem to have jolted the SADC into action in Eswatini. As recently as 30 June, Habib Kambanga, head of the SADC’s Regional Early Warning Centre (REWC) in Gaborone, told the ISS that there was no need to put Eswatini on the agenda of the SADC’s organ on politics, defence and security, which is the organisation’s trouble-shooting arm.

“SADC REWC is monitoring political and security threats in all member states including Eswatini,” he said. “According to the officials in Eswatini, the situation is not out of hand, so if that is the case, it cannot be an agenda item for the SADC meetings for now.”

Two days later Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who currently chairs that SADC security organ, announced that it would send a delegation of foreign ministers to Eswatini to try to facilitate an “open political dialogue” to defuse the crisis.

It was the first time Eswatini had been put on the security organ’s agenda, as far as any-one could remember. This is a place the SADC member states are embarrassed to be, because it means they have failed to keep their own houses in order and need help from the neighbours. It also means that their stranglehold on power is potentially in jeopardy.

The SADC appears to have been jolted into action by the bloodshed and destruction of property. Pretoria in particular seems to have prompted the organisation to act, alarmed and dismayed that the protesters were targeting South African property – evidently because they felt that South Africa was not using its potential leverage over King Mswati of Eswatini.

The SADC security organ delegation, headed by Botswana’s foreign minister, Lemogang Kwape, South Africa’s Naledi Pandor and Zimbabwe’s Frederick Shava, visited Eswatini to meet their counterpart, Thuli Dladla, as well as a few representatives of civil society, hand-picked by Mswati’s government because they are not too critical.

The real opposition – a collection of civil society groups and political parties loosely organised as the Multi-Stakeholders Coordinating Team – had to gatecrash the meeting. Its representatives briefly put their case but then said they needed more time to present their position properly. The SADC ministers agreed to return to Eswatini at a later date to hear them out.

In a letter that prominent Swazi human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, chair of the Multi-Stakeholders Coordinating Team, wrote to the SADC on 7 July, the group said the country’s fundamental problem was political – a lack of democratic accountability – and so required a democratic solution.

It listed a five-point plan as the basis for negotiations with Mswati’s government and support by the SADC. These were an all-inclusive mediated political dialogue/negotiation; total unbanning of political parties; a Transitional Executive Authority; a new democratic constitution; and a multiparty democratic dispensation.

Maseko told DM168 that the future of the monarchy should be added to the list. He said that, although Swazis had been prepared to consider the possibility of transforming the absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, the current violence perpetrated by security forces against protesters in the name of the king had prompted some opposition members to believe the monarchy should be abolished altogether.

Maseko also wrote to Mswati’s acting prime minister, Themba Masuku, on 7 July, proposing a dialogue between the Multi-Stakeholders Coordinating Team and the government on the same set of principles. Maseko told DM168 that Masuku had not yet replied. The letter was in part a response to Masuku’s complaint to a delegation of church leaders last week that the government was ready to talk but did not know who to talk to.

Whether the SADC can make any difference in Eswatini is a moot point. Its intervention in Zimbabwe, led by South Africa, after violent elections in 2008, led to a unity government that included the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. But President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF relinquished no real power and then returned to its prior position of exclusive power after the 2013 elections.

Clearly the SADC needs to intervene more forcefully and even-handedly.

And it also needs to intervene in crises like Mozambique and Eswatini much earlier before they spin out of control, or threaten to. Its early warning system cannot be only an intelligence apparatus to alert incumbent regimes of potential threats to their power. It must genuinely be used as a tool to warn the region as a whole that undemocratic behaviour by one of its members is jeopardising the stability and therefore the prosperity, not only of that country but also the whole neighbourhood. DM168

Snapshot of the SADC region

Mozambique and Eswatini are not the only trouble spots or potential trouble spots in southern Africa. They currently top the agenda of the regional trouble-shooting body, the politics, defence and security cooperation organ of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) because of recent violence and destruction. But some other nations among the SADC’s 16 member states are simmering, some with underlying issues that were never fully addressed and that could boil over if not attended to.

ZIMBABWE: It was once on SADC’s agenda but was deemed as solved after the 2013 elections and especially after Robert Mugabe was ousted in a palace revolt/military coup in November 2017, which replaced him with Emmerson Mnangagwa. Yet the ruling Zanu-PF continues undemocratic practices, including low-level violence against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) political opposition party. Though the MDC’s woes are partly of its own making, Zanu-PF is clearly doing its utmost to destabilise the opposition with divide-and-rule policies directed against Nelson Chamisa’s main MDC faction, the MDC-Alliance. The economy remains a mess.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The SADC turned a blind eye to Félix Tshisekedi’s alleged theft of the 2018 elections, which most independent observers believe were easily won by Martin Fayulu. Still, Tshisekedi’s abandonment of his de-facto coalition with his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, and embarkation on a more positive new direction has encouraged the region and the international community. But the chances of democratic, peaceful and fair elections in 2023 remain uncertain.

ZAMBIA: The country has never officially been in the SADC’s naughty corner even though current President Edgar Lungu deserves to be, his critics say. He is following a familiar African playbook of trying to stifle the political opposition, mainly perennial presidential challenger Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development, by hook or by crook. These have included charging him with treason when his convoy failed to make way for Lungu’s on a country road in 2017. Hichilema and other opposition leaders mounted an unsuccessful legal challenge to Lungu’s right to run for office again in August this year, saying it would be his third election and therefore unconstitutional. He countered that his first term, from January 2015 to July 2016, did not count as he was merely fulfilling the term of his predecessor, Michael Sata, who had died in office. The Constitutional Court rejected the opposition’s challenge.

LESOTHO: The nation was on the SADC’s agenda for several years after Prime Minister Tom Thabane had to flee his country in August 2014 following a brief military coup. Assassinations and military interference in politics followed. The SADC deployed a small military and police force for several months from November 2017 to try to stabilise the country to enable deep-seated political and military reforms to take place. The country has been stable since Thabane’s finance minister, Moeketsi Majoro, became prime minister at the head of a broad coalition last year. But the reforms have not been nearly completed and so the potential for instability remains.

MALAWI: President Lazarus Chakwera only attained office through a 2020 rerun election, after a courageous high court annulled the incumbent Peter Mutharika’s re-election in May 2019. These were dubbed the “Tippex” elections because so many ballots were falsified with white erasing fluid. Chakwera seems to have brought greater political stability.

COMOROS: This Indian Ocean archipelago state is the SADC’s newest member, joining in August 2017.  President Azali Assoumani’s party swept to victory in 2020 parliamentary elections boycotted by the opposition, which believed they would be rigged. This was clearly not a recipe for long-term stability.

MADAGASCAR: The country was on the SADC’s trouble list for several years from 2009 when it suspended the nation after Andry Rajoelina ousted President Marc Ravalomanana in a military coup. The SADC helped facilitate a return to democracy with elections in 2014. It controversially barred the bitter rivals from running and former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina emerged as victor of chaotic polls. In 2018 the old rivals faced each other and Rajoelina won, though Ravalomanana inevitably cried foul. Since then, the country has been relatively quiet, though its not clear if it will remain so during the next elections. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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