Political analysts have differed on President Lazarus Chakwera’s capacity to lead the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) in international fora since he holds a different position to that of the bloc on the status of the city of Jerusalem.
This comes after the Sadc member States last week wrote the African Union (AU) protesting its decision to grant Israel an observer status to the grouping. Several countries, including South Africa and Namibia, have criticised the decision.
The position of Sadc is diverged from Malawi’s intention to establish a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, effectively recognising the city as the capital of Israel. The decision would also go against resolutions of the United Nations that prohibit Palestine and Israel from unilaterally claiming the city as their own.
President Chakwera is the new chairperson of Sadc, and took over from Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi.
In a communique last Wednesday, the regional bloc which met for its 41st Heads of State and Government Summit in Lilongwe rallied together in its condemnation of the AU’s decision.
The summit “expressed concern and objected to the unilateral decision taken by the African Union Commission to grant the State of Israel Observer Status to the African Union”.
The statement pits the southern African bloc in direct opposition to the policies of the continental body.
Presidential spokesperson Sean Kampodeni said in an interview Malawi is a sovereign nation; hence, has the right to hold and maintain its position regardless of what other Sadc member countries resolve to communicate as a bloc.
In a WhatsApp response, Kampondeni said: “The President’s leadership of
Sadc is focused on issues aimed at advancing the economic integration agenda of the region, and no divergent views among member States as sovereign nations hammer the roll out of the agenda.”
In reaction, political commentator Humphrey Mvula said while the other member States will respect that Chakwera leads a sovereign State, Malawi’s position on Jerusalem will undermine his capacity to lead the bloc in international fora if he is pulling in a different direction.
He said: “It will be difficult and it will create a problem for the chairmanship of Chakwera because the other members might not trust his leadership on foreign policy matters. The [other member countries] will respect that he leads a sovereign State, but Sadc is a peer-type organisation where you have to pull in a common direction.”
Mvula further cautioned that it would be counterintuitive for a “small country” like Malawi to take a position that “most people fear to tread on… or would promote conflict against you” without weighing the potential risks and benefits.
“The big question is: what is the payback because you have to be able to say that my association with this [entity] provides these advantages for my country. At the end of the day, we should share in decisions that are beneficial to the majority of Malawians,” he said.
Neither Chakwera nor his team has provided any diplomatic gains, either economic incentives or improved influence on the international arena that formed the basis for his decision.
Coincidentally, the decision came when the former US president Donald Trump was putting pressure on US allies to follow Washington in recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital.
On his part, University of Malawi political scientist Blessings Chinsinga concurred with Kampondeni, saying Malawi’s position to set up an embassy in Jerusalem would not undermine Chakwera’s capacity to lead the organisation considering that Sadc has a broader mandate.
On the merits of establishing a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem even after Trump relinquished power, Chinsinga said Chakwera would be wrong to adopt a “populist opinion” based on a regime change in the US.
Said Chinsinga: “I’m sure Chakwera knew that Donald Trump would leave office. If he were to change his decision just because Trump is no longer US President, then that would not be leadership. But it is important that as a
nation, we engage the President to find out the reasons for his decisions on Jerusalem.”