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SADC pledges Free and Fair Zimbabwe Poll but Analysts Doubtful

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) bloc of countries says it’ll do its best to ensure that the elections to be held in Zimbabwe on Saturday are free and fair. Teams of observers from the regional mechanism are in the southern African country to monitor the polls. President Robert Mugabe faces challenges from opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and former finance minister Simba Makoni. In the months before the ballot, South African president Thabo Mbeki mediated talks between Mr. Mugabe and Tsvangirai. But the discussions broke down and critics have labeled the initiative a failure. Opposition supporters have repeatedly criticized SADC’s response to the Zimbabwe crisis and say they have little faith in the organization’s ability to ensure a democratic poll. VOA’s Darren Taylor reports in the final part of our series looking ahead to the Zimbabwe elections.

“SADC, they have bought into Mugabe’s characterization of the crisis, where he pretentiously projects himself as a victim of Western countries. A number of the leadership in the SADC region have been compromised by the way they’ve accepted that message,” says Briggs Bomba, a former student leader in Zimbabwe who now works for the Africa Action lobby group in Washington, D.C.

Bomba says many Zimbabweans are “bitter” as a result of SADC’s inability to secure substantive reforms in the southern African nation, which is plagued by food and fuel shortages, mass unemployment and frequent price increases.

“Africa has dealt with Mugabe with kid gloves,” says Bomba.

President Mugabe has presided over the worst economic crisis in Zimbabwe’s history, but he remains a hero to millions in the developing world. In the 1970s, he led a war of liberation against the white minority Rhodesian government and won independence for his people. He continues to be much admired around Africa for his frequent anti-Western diatribes, and for his policy of confiscating commercial farms from white people for redistribution to black Zimbabweans.

“SADC and others in Africa feel they can’t be seen to be criticizing a man like Mugabe, a revolutionary. He is like the untouchable chief of an old boy’s club,” says Sydney Masamvu, a Zimbabwean analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Mbeki’s failure

SADC, says Bomba, has never “unequivocally condemned” the human rights atrocities suffered by Zimbabweans in recent years, allegedly at the hands of the ruling ZANU-PF party and its machinery.

“The Mbeki-led process didn’t help the people of Zimbabwe at all. Yet SADC wasted no time in congratulating itself for so-called success…. One would have expected that SADC would come out with a statement at least condemning the party (ZANU-PF) that was responsible for undermining that dialogue, but that did not happen,” Bomba says.

President Mbeki has consistently refused to abandon his policy of “quiet diplomacy” with regard to the Zimbabwe crisis.

“Despite all that’s been said about what South Africa should do, Mbeki has never exercised much leverage over Mugabe,” states Masamvu.

“Most Zimbabwean civic groups denounced the Mbeki-mediated process from the outset, because they were not inclusive; they left out some parties and only included the M.D.C. (Movement for Democratic Change) and the ruling party,” explains Blessing Zulu, a journalist with VOA’s Zimbabwe service.

“People also said that in agreeing to the talks, President Mugabe was merely buying time because he agreed to the mediation directly after (M.D.C. leader Morgan) Tsvangirai and other civic leaders had been badly assaulted (in March last year by the police during demonstrations against Mugabe). People said Mr. Mugabe was just trying to divert attention from his security forces’ brutality – which, looking back, he seems to have achieved.”

Zulu says many Zimbabweans are of the opinion that Mr. Mbeki should have “dropped this policy of quiet diplomacy and used a megaphone, because gently prodding Mugabe in the direction of democracy has not worked.”

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party, which also waged a vicious liberation struggle against white minority rule, has strong ties with President Mugabe.

“They are therefore hesitant to chastise him for anything he does,” says Masamvu. “He is their friend – no matter what he does.”

Bomba adds that Zimbabwean citizens themselves have a “bit of a love-hate relationship” with South Africa: Many condemn the country’s government for not taking a strong stand against Mr. Mugabe, while at the same time thousands continue to illegally cross the crocodile-infested Limpopo River in search of a better life.

Yet, says Zulu, even Zimbabwean refugees living in South Africa are certain: “If President Mbeki [had publicly condemned] the human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, President Mugabe would have changed course.”

Michelle Gavin, of the United States’ Council on Foreign Relations and author of the council’s Special Report on Zimbabwe, says, “Everyone (in the U.S.) wishes that the SADC process could have been more successful. There’s a sense that key South African figures are perhaps a bit distracted by political developments within South Africa itself.”

President Bush has himself expressed disappointment with Pretoria’s indecisiveness with regard to its northern neighbor.

“I was hoping that the South African government would have been more pro-active in its intercession, to help the people of Zimbabwe. You know, (such intercession is) not anti-anybody; it’s pro-people,” Mr. Bush commented recently.

“South Africa is a tremendously important country to the U.S. for many reasons,” Gavin explains. “There is certainly concern in the U.S. about the ongoing spill-over effects of the Zimbabwean crisis on the South Africans and a desire to partner as much as possible with South Africa in any kind of effective strategy to help get Zimbabwe on the road to critically needed reforms and recovery.”

Masamvu appeals to SADC to “ensure that its own protocols and guidelines governing elections are implemented and are being enforced to ensure that the result which comes out in Zimbabwe on March 29 is undisputed and uncontested and reflects the will of the people.”

But most observers are skeptical that this will happen. They point to past polls in Zimbabwe for evidence that SADC has not been an honest broker.

Despite allegations of irregularities and violence against opposition supporters, especially during the 2002 ballot, SADC nevertheless repeatedly endorsed President Mugabe as the legitimate winner.

“It’s very difficult to see how SADC can very positively influence the situation this time around. They have to prove themselves to be standing with principles and to be standing with the people of Zimbabwe, not (with) any particular leadership,” says Bomba.

Brendan Murphy, the chief of VOA’s Zimbabwe service, is convinced that SADC “fell down” with respect to Zimbabwe: “There was not enough follow-through to that SADC process whereby President Mbeki was mediating talks between ZANU-PF and the opposition. That came to a dead end, and then SADC really didn’t say, ‘We’re going to take special care to ensure that these elections are free and fair.’ They’ve been going through the standard procedure of: ‘Well, we’ll send in observers and do all the things we’re supposed to do.’ But SADC hasn’t really been hovering over this election and signaling to Mugabe that they want it to be democratic.”

Zulu says Zimbabweans lost faith in SADC “a long time ago.”

“Most (Zimbabweans) have actually given up on SADC. They call it a paper tiger. It has not really come out in the open to say that what is happening in Zimbabwe is wrong. Simple as that.”

Lack of international, independent observers

According to SADC regulations, the regional mechanism’s observers should have been in Zimbabwe 90 days before the elections. Yet they only started arriving in Harare in dribs and drabs a little more than two weeks before voting was scheduled to begin.

This has angered Farai Muguwu, the head of the Center for Research and Development, a civic group in Zimbabwe’s capital.

“When they come (a short time) before the election, we can say they are coming simply to rubberstamp the election and then mislead the world that the election has been free and fair when in actual fact it was not!” he exclaims.

“SADC should have been in Zimbabwe in good time to monitor and ensure that their guidelines and principles on elections were being followed, but they did not do that. So on that front I think they have been found wanting,” says Zulu.

The Zimbabwean government has invited 47 countries and organizations to observe the poll. But President Mugabe is not allowing observers from nations and associations that have previously criticized his administration.

“As has been the case (before) with the ZANU-PF regime, they have invited their usual friendly countries and they’ve locked out observers from countries and regions where they are perceived to be anti the establishment and pro-Western. So in a sense we have no observers on the ground who can actually make an informed decision (as to the status of the elections) by interrogating the issues on the ground,” Masamvu explains.

After Mr. Mugabe won the 2002 ballot, the African Union reported no major irregularities and the South African government delegation also declared the polls free and fair. But other observers and opposition figures made charges of vote rigging, intimidation and widespread irregularities. A mission from South Africa’s parliament agreed that the vote had been rigged. In 2005, the Zimbabwean government refused permission to the South African parliamentary group to observe the poll, and it has also not invited SADC’s Parliamentary Forum to monitor the March 29 elections.

However, the government says it’ll allow almost 12,000 observers under the Zimbabwe Election Support Network to watch the process unfold. Analysts, though, are concerned that the security forces will severely restrict the movements of these monitors, and are also upset at a new law that permits police officers to be present inside polling stations to – in the words of president Mugabe – “assist illiterate and disabled voters.”

U.S. policy regarding Zimbabwe polls

In the run-up to the 2008 ballot, President Bush has made his feelings crystal clear regarding the situation in the southern African nation.

“In Zimbabwe, a discredited dictator presides over food shortages, staggering inflation and harsh repression. The decent and talented people of that country deserve much better,” Mr. Bush recently said before embarking on a visit to five African countries.

On another recent occasion, the U.S. president remarked: “Zimbabwe used to be a net exporter of food. Today, it is a net importer of food. Mr. Mugabe has ruined a country.”

Michelle Gavin says Mr. Bush’s comments reflect the “resignation” in Washington over its expectation that the Zimbabwe polls will not be democratic.

“There’s widespread recognition that there aren’t free and fair pre-election conditions, and therefore this won’t be the kind of exercise in which the Zimbabwean people are given all the tools and conditions that they need to really express themselves and their will…. At this point it’s a kind of ‘stand-back-and-watch’ scenario.”

Gavin says American leaders are hoping that “some time soon” they will “get in the Zimbabwean leadership the kind of reformer that the international community can engage with.”

Roxanne Lawson, of the TransAfrica Forum lobby group in Washington, says U.S. officials have already “written off” the Zimbabwe elections as a “complete failure” before a single ballot paper has been marked.

“I think on lots of levels that probably is a reality,” she says.

Murphy adds, “The U.S. ambassador in Harare himself (Jim McGee) has been expressing concerns about whether this can really be free and fair…. The assumption (in the U.S.) is that the government will try to rig the election.”

The U.S., European Union and others have installed “targeted” sanctions against individuals in Zimbabwe, banning Mr. Mugabe and other senior ruling party members from traveling to America and some parts of Europe. Their assets there have also been seized.

But Gavin says there are “real limits” to what the U.S. can do to improve the lives of Zimbabweans.

“We’ve seen that over the past several years. The U.S. can express its dismay and it’s dissatisfaction. It can continue with its targeted sanctions policy. But ultimately, the U.S. isn’t in the business of selecting governments for the people of Zimbabwe or any place else. There’s a degree to which we have to wait until there is some entity with whom we can work to help Zimbabwe recover.”

Nevertheless, Gavin says the U.S. can provide “incentives” to Zimbabwean political leaders who are willing to undertake “reforms.”

“The U.S. can make it clear that there’ll be very significant international assistance available if some key reforms are made and try and help effect the calculus of Zimbabwean actors in that respect,” she states.

“We would ask for people in the U.S. and across the globe to really be trying to connect with civil society in Zimbabwe so that they can listen to the voices of average Zimbabweans,” adds Lawson. “What we’re hearing a lot of is what the U.S. wants, what E.U. forces want, what the Zimbabwean government wants. We’re not hearing what the average Zimbabwean people want.”

Lawson wants to see the African Council of Elders, under the auspices of the African Union, becoming “much more actively engaged” in seeking a solution to the Zimbabwe stalemate.

But Sydney Masamvu says no matter what the outcome of the polls is, it’s time that Zimbabweans themselves start to take responsibility for their nation’s destiny: “At the end of the day, the survival or the renewal or the hope or the change which Zimbabweans desperately need, lies in their own hands.”