Why is Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) slow to tackle political crisis among its member States? A Peace and Security Council analysis bares the gaps.
Many in Southern Africa are asking why Sadc does not intervene in crises in the same way leaders in West Africa do.
During their 40th annual summit in August, Sadc leaders faced a barrage of criticism from citizens over their inaction in response to the region’s problems.
Civil society groups, opposition leaders and commentators wondered why Sadc is mostly 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 the regional bloc was not intervening in Zimbabwe to defuse the conflict as did Ecowas 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 said in an interview.
Ecowas heads of state are currently trying to resolve the political crisis in Mali. Previously, they intervened in 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 protracted political tension the same way Ecowas is doing in Mali. The opposition in the DRC holds Sadc responsible for the unrest after it intervened to legitimise a flawed election.
In Malawi, where former opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera won a rerun of the 2019 presidential elections which were found flawed by the country’s courts, people have little faith in Sadc. This is after the organisation rubber-stamped the nullified polls as peaceful and transparent.
It isn’t Ecowas anyway
Sadc, however, is 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.
This is certainly true in many instances. Ruling parties such as South Africa’s Africa National Congress, Zimbabwe National African Union Patriotic Front, and Mozambique’s Frelimo, Namibia’s South West Africa People Organisation and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of 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 where 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, who have not considered it in their interests to strengthen the Sadc Secretariat.
The 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, nothing happens.
Yet Ecowas is not faultless in this regard – whether it communicates effectively depends on the personality and strength of the chairperson of the Ecowas Commission.
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 Zimbabwe President Emmerson 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 people 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 newcomers such as Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles or the Comoros.
Following the August summit, Sadc is headed by Mozambique’s Filipe Nyusi and Botswana’s Mokgweetsi Masisi will lead the organ.
Lack of trust
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 West Africans can turn to the Ecowas Court of Justice.
The Sadc tribunal was dissolved in 2012 following pressure from Zimbabwe fallen president Robert Mugabe.
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 despite frequent requests to upgrade the forum.
However, as seen with the Pan-African Parliament, such a body would need to be representative of the entire political landscape and have a high profile to play a meaningful role.
Generally, Ecowas also has stronger links with non-governmental organisations and civil society than Sadc.
The structure of election observation missions, which often comprise government officials with little civil society participation, has 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 the regional bloc 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 west Africa, 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.
Hope for reforms
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.—Institute for Security Studies, Ethiopia. n