Home News Regional crises to test southern Africa at summit

Regional crises to test southern Africa at summit

Published on 16/08/2012

Southern African leaders meet Friday in Maputo for a summit that will try to nudge Madagascar and Zimbabwe toward new elections under "roadmaps" that are a test of the region's commitment to democracy.

The official focus of the summit is a $500-million proposal to develop roads and railways linking inland nations to key ports, but serious political issues in the region will dominate the two-day talks.

Most pressing is Madagascar, where the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) is pushing strongman Andry Rajoelina and ousted president Marc Ravalomanana to follow through on a roadmap meant to steer the island nation toward elections.

The rivals face a Thursday deadline to reach a deal, but such ultimatums have already come and gone without ending the crisis sparked by Rajoelina’s 2009 coup.

Rajoelina has consistently blocked Ravalomanana’s return from exile in South Africa. The main stumbling block is the former leader’s conviction over the deaths of 36 protesters at the hands of his presidential guard. Rajoelina says the conviction should bar him from standing in the next elections.

Zimbabwe is plodding along its own path toward elections, under a plan brokered by SADC in 2008 following a presidential run-off that left more than 200 dead, mostly opposition supporters.

The deal put long-ruling President Robert Mugabe in a unity government with his nemesis Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister. After years of delay, their parties have finally finished a draft constitution meant pave the way toward new polls.

The document needs voter approval in a referendum, possibly later this year.

“Hopefully, the SADC will stand firm on the position that there cannot be an election under the current constitution,” said Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.

Zimbabwe inherited its current constitution from the colonial Rhodesian regime, including harsh security laws that Mugabe has toughened over time.

Human Rights Watch urged SADC to press Zimbabwe “in addressing key human rights issues, including security sector reform, accountability for past abuses, and deterring politically motivated violence and other human rights abuses”.

Because of SADC’s heavy involvement in mediating those conflicts, both nations will test the mettle of a bloc that struggles to enforce its own agreed rules on democracy and human rights.

A regional court meant to give teeth to those rules was put on ice after the judges in 2009 ruled against Mugabe’s land reforms as racially biased.

“Southern Africa was building a house of justice, a place where crimes could not go unpunished and victims of injustice and human rights abuses could turn with confidence, but that house is now in grave danger,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu said, urging the leaders to restore the court.

Part of SADC’s problem is its disparate membership — from Africa’s last absolute monarchy in Swaziland, to prosperous democracies like South Africa and Mauritius.

Among its successes, violent conflicts have largely disappeared from the region.

Angola holds its second peacetime elections on August 31 — although the race has little competition with President Jose Eduardo dos Santos expected to easily extend his 33 years in power despite a small protest movement.

“The human rights environment in Angola with elections fast approaching is not at all conducive to free, fair, and peaceful elections,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“The Angolan government has made sure the vote won’t be a fair one,” he said, urging effective monitoring at the polls.

The last major conflict area is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where clashes between rebel movement M23 and the government have displaced 250,000 since April.

While the summit will discuss the violence, actual mediation efforts are happening within the East African sphere, said Cilliers.

“We know that SADC is not going to engage on the DRC, which is a big concern … even though the DRC is a member state,” said Cilliers.