The problem with SADC’s ‘brotherly’ stance on Zimbabwe sanctions

By supporting Zimbabwe’s oppressive government, SADC risks setting a very low bar for democracy in southern Africa.

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa Reuters
Zimbabwe's President Mnangagwa seen at a meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, June 5, 2019 [File: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters]

Following a decision made in August by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) secretariat, the body’s 16 member states are expected to organise simultaneous activities on October 25 to show solidarity with Zimbabwe and demonstrate their disapproval of sanctions imposed on the country by the European Union and the United States.

Zimbabwe is still subject to sanctions that date back to the reign of former President Robert Mugabe, who was ousted in late 2017 after 38 years in power. The EU sanctions consist of an arms embargo and targeted asset freezes and travel bans, while the US has imposed financial restrictions and travel sanctions against selected individuals and entities. 

Following Mugabe’s ousting, a swift return to democracy and consequent lifting of sanctions were expected. Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, however, proved to be a far more brutal leader than him. Under his watch, anti-government protests stemming from an ever-deepening economic crisis have been repressed with unprecedented force. In August 2018 and January 2019, for example, soldiers reportedly killed and raped scores of unarmed civilians participating in peaceful anti-government demonstrations.

In response, the US and the EU extended the sanctions they previously imposed on the country and vowed to keep all sanctions in place until Mnangagwa’s government allows protests and changes laws that restrict media freedoms. 

SADC, nevertheless, claims the “illegal sanctions” have “an adverse impact on the economy of Zimbabwe and the region at large”, and calls for their immediate lifting to facilitate “socioeconomic recovery in the country”. Were it genuine, SADC’s public concern for the wellbeing of ordinary Zimbabweans would be welcome and much appreciated. However, SADC is lobbying against sanctions not to help Zimbabwe’s democratic and economic progression, but to whitewash the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front’s (ZANU-PF) repressive tactics and policy failures.

SADC has not only failed to censure Harare for violently stifling dissent and ignoring Zimbabweans’ core constitutional rights, but also claimed that “internal groups, in particular, NGOs, supported by external forces” are the ones that are destabilising the country.

The SADC leadership’s shocking reaction to repeated incidents of state-sanctioned violence in Zimbabwe and insistence that any opposition to ZANU-PF is a product of foreign intervention show that they believe Zimbabwean citizens cannot possibly embrace progressive ideals and make simple democratic choices for themselves. 

To label democratic dissent a form of foreign-funded destabilisation is to create a polarising political binary and deny Zimbabweans the right to enjoy the full measure of liberal and constitutional freedoms. Furthermore, SADC is being extremely disingenuous about the source and nature of Zimbabwe’s intricate challenges. The ebb and flows of Zimbabwe’s multifaceted problems always match its ever-soaring political temperature. But SADC has never adopted a robust and dynamic approach to either monitoring or resolving Zimbabwe’s long-standing political and economic challenges. It only feigns dogmatic, obligatory interest in Zimbabwe’s affairs mainly before and after mostly disputed elections.

Why has SADC been reluctant to condemn repressive tendencies and the recurring use of excessive, deadly force against unarmed, peaceful demonstrators in recent times? Human rights defender Tatenda Mombeyarara, MDC youth leader Blessing Kanotunga, comedian Samantha “Gonyeti” Kureya and President of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association Dr Peter Magombeyi were reportedly abducted and tortured earlier this year. SADC has not explicitly condemned any of these politically motivated abductions or other crimes committed against unarmed, peaceful individuals.

By openly and unreservedly siding with an increasingly authoritarian government masquerading as a reformed and progressive “Second Republic”, SADC is making light of a pressing and ever-expansive need to enact serious political, media and security reforms in Zimbabwe out of “brotherly” love. 

And it is undermining a substantial need for ZANU-PF to belatedly take straightforward stock of its countless failures, public sector corruption and gross inefficiency.

Various reports published by Auditor-General Mildred Chiri in June have detailed flagrant accounting malpractices as well as excessive and unauthorised expenditure amounting to billions of dollars at state entities, ministries and local authorities.

SADC, though, continues to relentlessly beat the anti-sanctions drum without paying appropriate, consistent attention to the multidimensional threat of corruption, political unaccountability, dodgy elections and rampant impunity manufactured by ZANU-PF since President Mnangagwa’s inauguration in November 2017. 

By supporting the ZANU-PF-led government and disregarding the credible cries of long-suffering Zimbabwean citizens, SADC runs the risk of setting an incredibly low bar for democracy in southern Africa and continually watering a growing trend of political denialism among former liberation war parties.   

The undeclared slide to authoritarian populist rule favoured by ZANU-PF has created an economic quagmire and political survival, not Western sanctions or economic revival, seemingly occupies the top of the government’s agenda. 

It’s a political strategy that SADC is awfully comfortable with, because the organisation has failed to transform into a strong, progressive-thinking political outfit. 

It’s a fallacy to believe that a post-independence failure by a former liberation war party could possibly vindicate colonial rule or diminish past achievements. As things stand, ZANU-PF certainly helped to liberate Zimbabwe, but it has failed to build the Zimbabwe it promised before and just after independence. Still, this should not compromise or diminish the democratic ideals cherished by progressive-minded Zimbabweans and residents of southern Africa.

SADC must in fact create a solid and effective political surveillance system to closely monitor democratic developments within the region, a facility that will lead the charge against enduringly delinquent administrations such as Zimbabwe’s. Undeniably, SADC should not have to wait for Western nations to point out glaringly obvious constitutional transgressions or human rights abuses. Besides, a still-murderous “new dispensation” cannot be persuaded to freely adopt democracy without establishing measures that proactively punish repressive deeds. 

A distorted brand of pan-Africanism, where the voluntary, self-gratifying need to maintain old, wartime relationships trumps people-centred necessities and expressions, will obviously fail and simply cause further widespread social, economic and political instability in southern Africa. 

To be sure, what Western powers demand of Zimbabwe’s government does not really matter in the greater scheme of life, but the humanitarian needs, liberal freedoms and democratic choices of Zimbabweans always will. So, if anybody should rebuke Zimbabwe’s government, it should be SADC.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.