Southern Africa Solves Its Conflicts, But Neglects Underlying Causes | Freedom House

Southern Africa Solves Its Conflicts, But Neglects Underlying Causes

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The peacekeeping mechanism of the Southern African Development Community (SADC)—the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security—has been put to the test several times in recent years. Although it has proven to be quite effective at maintaining regional stability, the Organ has ignored the real causes of conflict, and it has been unable to hold certain leaders to account for their undemocratic actions.

SADC is now being called upon to keep the peace once again. The trouble this time is in Lesotho, where armored vehicles rumbled into the capital, Maseru, in the early hours of August 30. As Prime Minister Tom Thabane fled to South Africa in fear of his life, elements of Lesotho’s army took actions that appeared to bear all the hallmarks of a military coup, even if the main protagonists claimed it was nothing more than an antiterrorism operation. The military’s sortie from its barracks was prompted by months of political wrangling between the three parties in Lesotho’s governing coalition. The dispute had already resulted in a suspension of Parliament in June, one party’s apparent departure from the coalition shortly afterward, and SADC mediation led by Namibia, which ultimately failed to break the deadlock.

With a potential military conflict looming on South Africa’s doorstep and important water supplies to Gauteng Province, the region’s economic hub, in peril, crisis talks were hastily convened in Pretoria. They were led by South African president Jacob Zuma in his capacity as chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, and included all of Lesotho’s key government leaders.

An agreement was reached behind closed doors, and a statement was released on September 1, paving the way for all coalition partners to return to Lesotho to work out their differences. In keeping with SADC’s tradition of quiet diplomacy, the resolution encouraged inclusivity and favored dialogue over military intervention.

This approach is to be celebrated for three reasons. It ensures that lives will not be lost. It also makes certain that investor confidence in Lesotho, and more importantly in SADC, is not dented. Finally, nobody in SADC wishes to see a return to the violence and civil strife experienced in this region in the not-too-distant past.

However, the diplomatic strategy pursued by Zuma and the Organ must be subjected to closer scrutiny. For while the peace has been kept for now, it is doubtful that the Lesotho crisis is over and that any of the root causes of the political standoff have been addressed through the recent talks. In essence the statement released by Zuma merely repeats the agreement brokered weeks earlier by Namibia. And it now appears that this latest deal is unraveling, as the rogue army commander has refused to back down, Thabane is backtracking on his promise to reopen Parliament, and Zuma is being forced to travel to the mountain kingdom for further talks.

Indeed, a cursory glance at SADC’s other successes on the stability and peacekeeping front suggests that the Organ may have succeeded in little more than papering over the cracks.

Signed in 2001, the Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation created a rotating troika structure that is responsible for “promoting peace and security in the region.” While SADC has been able to help resolve conflicts and reduce violence in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and now (possibly) Lesotho, the agreements in question have never really come to grips with the thorny societal, political, and governance issues underlying those conflicts, or the democratic deficits that lead to instability.

Following the violent 2008 elections in Zimbabwe, SADC was lauded for brokering a Government of National Unity (GNU) that, although flawed, held the warring factions together and prevented further bloodletting. Through the Global Political Agreement (GPA), SADC also made an attempt to address some root causes of the crisis—including weak rule of law and unfair elections. In the end, however, the organization was heavily criticized for poor implementation, for its inability to hold Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party to their commitments, and for ignoring the manipulation of elections in 2013.

In Madagascar, between the 2009 coup and last year’s elections, SADC played a pivotal role in hammering out a roadmap that ultimately guided the country’s reentry into the international community. While the regional body has been rightly praised for an impressive piece of dogged diplomacy, there are some fears that Madagascar’s recent return to the bosom of SADC has not come with sufficient scrutiny of the remaining problems that could precipitate another crisis in the near future.

The SADC Summit has never been an arena in which heads of state face criticism from their peers, at least not openly. Even behind the scenes, pressure only builds in response to crises, coups, or calamities that pose imminent threats to stability. Three important factors shape this approach: a strong commitment to respect the sovereignty of member states, the solidarity between governments with roots in liberation movements in Southern Africa, and an apparent reluctance among SADC states to cede power to regional entities or legal frameworks.

Nevertheless, there is a strong case to be made that progressively minded SADC states could use the Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation to direct more attention to the underlying causes of conflict. It should be remembered that, aside from peace and stability, the protocol requires the Organ to “promote the development of democratic institutions and practices” and “encourage the observance of universal human rights.”

A greater focus on these issues by troika leaders, with the full political backing of SADC, would immeasurably strengthen the performance of the Organ and open space for the involvement of civil society organizations in conflict-resolution processes. Because these are clearly stated aims of the protocol, improvements could be made without revisiting the doctrines of sovereignty and solidarity or the political imperatives at the highest level of SADC. Such an approach would also satisfy the moral obligation of democratic states to promote human rights and democracy not just within their borders, but also beyond them.

Starting with the crisis in Lesotho, South Africa should use its position as chair of the Organ for the next year to reach beyond securing near-term peace, ensure the meaningful involvement of all sections of society, and chart a path to a lasting solution. In so doing, South Africa could form the vanguard of a movement in which SADC becomes a positive force for long-term social and democratic cohesion in Southern Africa.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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