Harare, Zimbabwe - Southern African leaders are today meeting in Mozambique to discuss how to fund a Zimbabwe election that President Robert Mugabe wants held by July 31.
Fourteen heads of state and government of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are in the coastal city of Maputo to consider a request for $132 million from the cash-strapped Zimbabwe government to bankroll the vote, in which 89-year-old Mugabe is looking to extend his 33 years in power.
The Saturday meeting was proposed by South African President Jacob Zuma - SADC's point-man in the Zimbabwe dialogue - who asked regional leaders at the recent African Union summit in Addis Ababa to help Zimbabwe and fund the crucial vote.
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The 15-state SADC bloc - which has suspended Madagascar - had initially set the special Zimbabwe meeting for last Sunday, but it was cancelled after Mugabe indicated he would instead be attending a conference in Tokyo.
The meeting was rescheduled to Tuesday, but Mugabe again said he would be unavailable, as he was chairing a cabinet meeting over a Constitutional Court ruling which ordered him to proclaim poll dates and make sure elections were held by the end of July. The announcement has been by Mugabe, but rejected by his coalition foe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Tsvangirai argues there is insufficient time to level the political playing field, give equal access to all parties to campaign on state media, and to rein in security sector generals who are issuing public statements threatening to veto the political transition if Mugabe loses the election.
On Thursday, Mugabe issued a presidential decree stating that parliamentary and presidential elections would be held on July 31, immediately sparking a stand-off with Tsvangirai - who wants the election delayed by up to four months.
"It is now clear that President Mugabe called for the postponement [of the SADC summit] in order to go to SADC with a done deal of an election date," Tsvangirai told reporters.
"The net effect of President Mugabe's unilateral and illegal proclamation is an unmitigated frontal and rear attack on SADC, the AU [African Union] and President Zuma and his team.
"Thus, clearly, President Mugabe has sought to render the forthcoming SADC summit a dead rubber and a talk show. This is clearly dishonest and disrespectful of the esteemed leaders of SADC, the AU, President Zuma and our brothers and sisters on the African continent."
Tsvangirai, who was also invited to the summit, argues he was not consulted by Mugabe about poll dates and that there is no way credible elections could be organised in just six weeks.
But Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, Zimbabwe's foreign affairs minister, and Patrick Chinamasa, the justice and legal affairs minister - both members of Mugabe's Zanu PF in the coalition government - claimed the former opposition leader was scared of elections.
"Parliament expires on June 29, but they are still saying 'we don't want any elections'," Mumbengegwi told diplomats in Harare on Thursday.
"Of course, as you know, the Constitutional Court gave an order and his excellency the president today obeyed the decision of the Constitutional Court."
Rule of law
Chinamasa said Mugabe was simply observing due process.
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"When it comes to rule of law, when it comes to orders of the Constitutional Court, of any court, the court sends you to prison, you don't negotiate or consult whether you are going to prison or not, you have no option but to comply - and the president in this instance had no option but comply," Chinamasa said.
"What also made us take this route was, of course, the fact that parliament is ending in two weeks' time on June 29. After June 29, we reckon that only the president would have the authority to do anything, anything that is lawful. All of us will have no legitimacy, will have no authority, no anything in order to govern this country. For that reason, we decided that we would not entertain a long period of a constitutional vacuum to give rise to crises."
Tsvangirai says the SADC summit will have to "call Mugabe to order" and ensure all outstanding reforms under an election roadmap drafted by the regional bloc was implemented to avert a repeat of the 2008 election, which saw hundreds of arrests of opposition supporters and several fatalities.
Human Rights Watch warned in a 44-page report earlier this month that failure to reform the country's army and police forces raised the spectre of another flawed election.
Civil society speaks out
Today's summit has generated frantic interest inside Zimbabwe, and will likely be the last such meeting before the country of 12 million goes to the polls.
Zimbabwean civil society groups say they have presented a damning petition to the Mozambican minister of foreign affairs, Oldemiro Balói, for submission to the SADC, urging regional leaders meeting to make any financial support for Zimbabwe's election expressly conditioned on implementation of key electoral reforms.
Trevor Maisiri, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said financial support from the bloc for a member state's elections was not a new thing.
"SADC is mandated to help member states strengthen their democratic infrastructure, and one way of doing that is electoral support," he said.
"However, such support comes in different ways and forms."
Maisiri said that in 2011, SADC, through South Africa, helped with logistical arrangements after the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had failed to distribute ballot material across the country on time and there were challenges with coordination within the whole electoral process.
"The only difference here is that Zimbabwe requires hard cash, as a form of electoral support," Maisiri said. "Given the challenges of the Zimbabwe election process and the lack of consensus on election dates and pre-election reforms, SADC is not likely to provide funding without preconditions to settling these differences. SADC's support will be conditional to the willingness of the GPA parties to find consensus on outstanding issues. It's unlikely that SADC will provide funding for a process that still has so many differences - if SADC does that, it only adds fuel to the fire. Consensus is key to funding."
Pre-conditions for support
Arnold Tsunga, a human rights lawyer, said it was not too much of a problem if a sub-regional body were to help a member state with funds to hold elections.
"If anything, it's a step in the right direction," he said. "The problem arises if such funding is not conditional upon the state needing to comply with minimum conditions for elections to be genuine, free and fair. In the case of Zimbabwe, the tools for measurement are the GPA, the SADC guidelines governing democratic elections, the AU Declaration on Elections and Good Governance and the new Zimbabwe Constitution.
If SADC as guarantor plays a complicit role by financing a sham election, it will be a diplomatic error of incalculable proportions.
"Currently Zimbabwe is nowhere near compliant with these and seems focused on chronological compliance, rather than the quality of elections. If SADC as guarantor plays a complicit role by financing a sham election, it will be a diplomatic error of incalculable proportions."
Charles Mangongera, a political analyst, said the SADC had an obligation to deliver a credible election in Zimbabwe - to demonstrate that it had dealt with the Zimbabwean crisis once and for all.
"Zimbabwe has been a major drag on the region's efforts to attain full economic integration, and it has been a constant irritation to the regional bloc's international standing," Mangongera said.
"They see the issue of funding as a major determinant of the quality of the election and they will therefore make sure that they mobilise resources for the election. In reality, it's going to be South Africa and, to a certain extent, Botswana, that will provide the money - if indeed SADC manages to give any financial support. The rest of the countries do not have sufficient fiscal space to make any meaningful contributions."
There is also a sense of an over-estimation of SADC's capacity and influence on Zimbabwean politics, observers say.
Fambai Ngirande, an academic and social justice activist, said funding the elections would no doubt increase SADC's leverage with the electoral process, particularly in order to ensure that the elections adhere to the blocs own election guidelines.
"However, it is doubtful if SADC as an entity has the resources to fund Zimbabwe's elections," Ngirande said.
"Even more doubtful is whether SADC will be given the opportunity to fund the election, given that snubbing SADC funding will be a victory of sorts for Zanu PF's effort to cordon off the elections from broader scrutiny. It would appear that Zanu PF confidence in proclaiming an election date assumes an assuredness of the availability of funds - and l would suspect that local resourcing from areas such as the unaccountable diamond revenue and license renewal for telecom firms will suffice to resource the elections locally."
Diamond watchdog Partnership Africa Canada, a member of the Kimberley Process initiative against "blood diamonds", claimed in a November 2012 report that there had been theft of at least $2 billion of diamonds from Zimbabwe's Marange fields by people linked to Mugabe's Zanu PF party.
"Conservative estimates place the theft of Marange goods at almost $2 billion since 2008," the report, rubbished by authorities in Zimbabwe, claimed.
The government was also reportedly mulling a hike in mobile telecommunication license fees from $100 million to $137.5 million, after extending the tenure of the fee from 15 years to 20 years in a poll fundraising move that has been condemned as "unorthodox" and "inflationary" by economists.
Zimbabwe's coffers were depleted by a March 15 referendum on a new constitution that cost the country $40 million. The vote left just $217 in the nation's bank accounts, said the country's finance minister at the time.
Follow Gift Phiri on Twitter: @giftphiri