It is still too early to say whether the recent dramatic events in Zimbabwe – which saw President Robert Mugabe’s thirty-seven year rule collapse spectacularly in just seven days – represent a break with the past or a mere exercise in elite transition.
For regional and continental bodies, however, these recent events may represent a new set of existential headaches, which the Southern African country of 16 million has given the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and even the UN for nearly two decades now.
“Operation Restore Legacy” was the official military designation of the “bloodless” coup (names abound on social media, from “coup lite” to “baby coup” to “almost coup” and so on) which, executed with precision, sealed off Harare and Mugabe for a few days, and led to the arrest of government and Zanu PF party officials the military referred to as “criminals” around President Mugabe.
The siege ended – officially at least – with Mugabe’s resignation and the inauguration of Emmerson Mnangagwa as President a few days later.
The new president promised, on the one hand, to build on the “legacy” of his predecessor, and on the other, to address economic, human rights and geopolitical challenges that had become synonymous with Mugabe’s authoritarian rule, especially in his last few years in power. No doubt a Herculean task.
Zimbabweans both at home and in the diaspora went into the streets to celebrate what seemed like a return to the heady days of independence in the 1980s.
They also ascended (or it the opposite) into cyberspace, populating social media platforms with platitudes to the military and to the “Crocodile”, as the incoming president is often referred to by his fans and foes alike; shared memes mocking the just-deposed leader and his infamous wife, and asserted their right to chart a new path for the country.
Analysts and the “commentariat” brigade are split on the meaning of all this: some see an opportunity – a rare one at that – for the country to reboot and start afresh, while for others this represents a mere change of guard in the same authoritarian politico-military complex, where civil liberties, human rights and democracy remain curtailed in reality. Either way, time will tell.
A coup by another name?
For both SADC and the AU, the events in Zimbabwe represent a conundrum. To start with, consider the nomenclature. Was this a coup or not? Military tanks rolling into the streets, the president placed under house arrest, the military seizing the state broadcaster and announcing they’ve taken over briefly to “clean” the system (whilst pledging loyalty to the now besieged president) by arresting “criminals” around the centre for power. All this has the hallmarks of an unconstitutional seizure of state power, aka coup!
SADC, through its current President Jacob Zuma, chose its words carefully. The regional body expressed concern over the “unfolding political situation in Zimbabwe”. No ‘C’ word here. The African Union’s current Chair, President Alpha Conde of Guinea, was a bit more explicit: the events in Zimbabwe “seem(ed) like a coup”, read the AU’s initial press statement. It must have come as a relief to both bodies, when Mugabe offered to resign and within days a bloodless transition ensued.
Both bodies welcomed the resignation, showering praise on Mugabe for handing over in what they both referred to as a peaceful transition. This is interesting in the sense that there was more emphasis on the “peaceful” outcome of the “political situation”, than the constitutionality or otherwise of the process that led to this.
While this “peaceful” transfer of power may have saved both SADC and the AU from having to face the difficult tasks of dealing with the reality of a coup, how the “transition” in Zimbabwe shapes out going into the future may come to haunt both bodies.
Firstly, given that the military have had a taste – for the first time in the country’s history – of what it means to turn the “gun-follows-politics” mantra on its head, there is nothing to stop them from repeating that sooner or later should elections deliver a political outcome that does not serve their interests.
Given that President Mnangagwa has announced that the country goes to the polls next year, it is conceivable that, should the Zanu PF candidate lose the presidential election to the opposition, the army may find the temptation to stray from the barracks too good to ignore.
After all, the same army generals announced they would not salute a leader with no liberation war credentials in the run up to the 2002 election.
In the event of the army rolling back into the streets following the next election (or elections), both SADC and the AU will still have to address the problem they conveniently shelved now. Add this to the important issue of united citizens’ right to claim the streets and demand the leadership they want.
A few days into the coup, citizens of all hue, gender and age filled the streets of Zimbabwe’s major capitals (with the support of the army) and demanded Mugabe’s resignation. The spectacle was nothing short of a united people’s reclamation of power from an unaccountable leadership.
If we assume that the genie is already out, what would happen if the army refuses to accept a future elected president, but the people come out in their numbers to defy the army?
Old boys club?
When SADC announced it was sending a delegation to Zimbabwe to address the crisis, there were cries of derision by some Zimbabwean citizens on social media, imploring SADC to stay away.
This is because within the opposition and civil society circles, SADC is viewed as having consistently sided with the Mugabe government for the duration of his rule, while paying lip service to the human rights violations and electoral malpractices that characterised his regime.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” on Zimbabwe is often criticised as having been one-sided, in support of Mugabe.
The accusations against both SADC and the AU as being “boys clubs” that protect elite political interests at the expense of the suffering ordinary Africans are not new.
But they should also be read in context. Both bodies were founded in the crucible of anti-colonial struggles, where solidarity was key when facing the common enemy, i.e. colonialism and Apartheid.
With the defeat of both, the regional and continental bodies had to transform themselves into trade, peace and security bodies, while liberation parties that had effectively constituted these bodies assumed state power.
In several instances, the new mandates flew into the faces of the old ones: in many instances the solidarities, comradeships, sinews that were born in the crucibles of the struggles trumped over the new imperatives of calling fellow leaders to order in instances where they violated human rights.
Is there a way forward?
The Zimbabwean case is not the only potential headache for SADC and the AU. The situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where incumbent President Joseph Kabila has inexplicably postponed the elections by at least another year, amid soaring unpopularity with the citizens, continues to cry for urgent and effective regional and continental interventions beyond the usual “special envoy” deployments.
That both the AU and SADC have achieved success in peaceful conflict resolution, trade, and integration in a few instances is not in doubt. Neither is their importance as critical African institutions leading the way in the continent’s quest for peace, economic development and a voice in the global geopolitical matrix. But both bodies need to do more to gain credibility from ordinary Africans.
There needs to be effective, consistent, and principle-driven systems of sanction or other corrective measures for flouting the democratic rules that all member countries have signed up to, but sometimes ignore with impunity. Without this, both SADC and the AU risk being confined to the side lines of the citizens’ daily struggles, and in the process becoming redundant elite talking shops.
- Wallace Chuma is the Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Cape Town.