Ecowas les­son for SADC?

West African states have in­ter­vened to force out The Gam­bia’s Yahya Jam­meh… can group­ing do the same on dic­ta­tors hang­ing on to power in the re­gion, ask

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HAS THE Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity of West African States (Ecowas) just taught the South­ern African De­vel­op­ment Com­mu­nity (SADC) a les­son? The West African states ef­fec­tively took a dic­ta­tor to task af­ter he re­fused to com­ply with the demo­cratic will of the peo­ple to va­cate of­fice.

By us­ing diplo­macy in com­bi­na­tion with the threat of mil­i­tary force, they man­aged to con­vince for­mer Gam­bian pres­i­dent Yahya Jam­meh to sur­ren­der power and leave the coun­try. This was af­ter he was de­feated in an elec­tion.

Why has the south­ern African re­gional body been, in com­par­i­son, so in­ef­fec­tual? Will it learn from Ecowas and be­come more in­ter­ven­tion­ist?

Many coun­tries in south­ern Africa have not had free and fair elec­tions – Zim­babwe is the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple.

Where there have been cases of un­con­sti­tu­tional seizures of power, or lead­ers have stayed in of­fice de­spite a lack of elec­toral sup­port, there has been at best some form of SADC me­di­a­tion, but not the threat of mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion.

Such con­trast­ing rel­a­tive tol­er­ance, if not out­right pas­siv­ity, can be ex­plained by a num­ber of fac­tors. They re­late in part to the sub-re­gional con­fig­u­ra­tion, with for­mer lib­er­a­tion move­ments gov­ern­ing the most in­flu­en­tial mem­ber states.

In ad­di­tion, there ap­pears to be a lack of com­mon po­lit­i­cal will. This can be seen from the fact that there is no op­er­a­tional re­gional mil­i­tary force.

SADC’s cred­i­bil­ity is at stake. At a time when the AU is in­creas­ingly pro­mot­ing le­git­i­mate gov­er­nance, the ques­tion arises: how much longer can SADC jus­tify its in­ac­tion?

The An­glo­phone mem­ber states of Ecowas formed a mil­i­tary force – the Ecowas Cease­fire Mon­i­tor­ing Group – in 1990. It has in­ter­vened in a num­ber of civil wars and cases of in­sta­bil­ity in West Africa.

SADC, on the other hand, has for years been at­tempt­ing to or­gan­ise a stand-by force which would fall un­der the stand-by force of the AU. But the SADC force isn’t op­er­a­tional and has not got be­yond ba­sic train­ing ex­er­cises. Units of the SANDF have been de­ployed for peace-mak­ing mis­sions on be­half of the AU and the UN in a num­ber of African coun­tries.

A dis­as­trous mil­i­tary en­gage­ment in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic cost the lives of 13 South African sol­diers in March 2013. South African troops re­main in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo (DRC), a SADC mem­ber state. Sol­diers have been killed there too. It can­not be said that south­ern Africa has not ex­pe­ri­enced the kind of civil wars that West Africa has had in re­cent decades, and that there has there­fore not been the need for such a force in the re­gion.

The war in the DRC has been far larger than those in Liberia and Sierra Leone where the East African re­gional force in­ter­vened. And there have been a num­ber of other cases of in­sta­bil­ity where a SADC force might well have played a role in bring­ing about le­git­i­mate gov­er­nance, in­clud­ing Mada­gas­car and Zim­babwe.

The only case that some­what re­sem­bled events around The Gam­bia was South Africa’s in­ter­ven­tion in Le­sotho in Septem­ber 1998. Nom­i­nally un­der SADC, that in­ter­ven­tion’s goal was to en­sure the in­cum­bent ruler was not ousted by op­po­si­tion forces.

Three SADC mem­ber states did in­ter­vene mil­i­tar­ily in the DRC in Au­gust 1998. Troops from An­gola, Namibia and Zim­babwe were de­ployed, nom­i­nally un­der the um­brella of SADC.

The goal was to aid the then pres­i­dent, Lau­rent De­siré Ka­bila, against rebels who had in­vaded the east­ern Congo. Ka­bila would not have been able to con­sol­i­date him­self in power with­out the mil­i­tary sup­port of the three SADC states.

Both in­ter­ven­tions were con­tro­ver­sial within SADC, since they were not based on a com­mon de­ci­sion by the mem­ber states. These were at that time marred by the ri­valry be­tween Zim­babwe’s Robert Mu­gabe and Nel­son Man­dela. This may help ex­plain why there have not been any sim­i­lar mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions since.

Zim­babwe stands out as a case for in­ter­ven­tion. Back in March 2002 Mu­gabe’s re-elec­tion as pres­i­dent was rigged and did not re­flect the demo­cratic will of the peo­ple.

Then in March 2008 he lost pres­i­den­tial elec­tions to his ri­val Mor­gan Ts­van­gi­rai. By all ac­counts Ts­van­gi­rai won, but Mu­gabe rigged the vote. A sec­ond round of vot­ing was deemed nec­es­sary. But the rul­ing party’s mili­tia un­leashed bru­tal state ter­ror against the op­po­si­tion and Ts­van­gi­rai pulled out of a sec­ond round to stop fur­ther loss of lives.

In­stead of tak­ing ac­tion against Mu­gabe, SADC en­gaged in me­di­a­tion. This led to a coali­tion gov­ern­ment be­ing formed.

Why did Ecowas act firmly against Jam­meh while SADC didn’t against Mu­gabe? There are a num­ber of rea­sons.

Zim­babwe is a much more im­por­tant coun­try in south­ern Africa than The Gam­bia is in West Africa. De­spite all his hu­man rights abuses and re­pres­sive rule, Mu­gabe re­mains a widely-re­spected lib­er­a­tion hero and pop­u­lar among large parts of the pop­u­la­tion in the sub-re­gion and on the con­ti­nent. He has been able to project him­self as hav­ing not only lib­er­ated his coun­try from colo­nial­ism, but also as re­main­ing stead­fast against colo­nial in­flu­ences. Above all, he man­aged to sell his fast-track land re­forms as a nec­es­sary and just act of ap­pro­pri­at­ing land from white farm­ers and giv­ing it to blacks.

An­other key fac­tor is that the most in­flu­en­tial SADC coun­tries are led by lib­er­a­tion-era lead­ers who con­tinue to re­gard Mu­gabe as one of their own.

Tak­ing ac­tion against Mu­gabe would there­fore be con­tro­ver­sial, and the con­se­quences dif­fi­cult to pre­dict. In ad­di­tion, Zim­babwe’s army has re­mained loyal to Mu­gabe and is a force to be reck­oned with. The SADC lead­er­ship there­fore played safe and did noth­ing ef­fec­tive.

Un­for­tu­nately, there seems lit­tle chance of SADC fol­low­ing Ecowas’s ex­am­ple and us­ing the kind of in­ter­ven­tion that led to Jam­meh’s re­moval from of­fice.

SADC faces just such a test in the DRC. Pres­i­dent Joseph Ka­bila has fi­nally agreed to leave of­fice. This should hap­pen at the lat­est a year af­ter he should have stepped down when his two terms came to an end. He made his de­ci­sion af­ter pub­lic protests against his con­tin­ued stay in of­fice turned vi­o­lent in De­cem­ber. Many peo­ple were killed dur­ing two days of ri­ots.

If Ka­bila re­neges on the agree­ment he has made, will SADC act to en­sure he leaves of­fice? How long will it take be­fore SADC has the means and will to re­move rulers who have ei­ther been de­feated in an elec­tion or who refuse to ac­cept that their terms of of­fice have come to an end? Will what has hap­pened in West Africa in the case of The Gam­bia help per­suade SADC to move to­wards more ef­fec­tive in­ter­ven­tions to re­move dic­ta­tors and other il­le­git­i­mate rulers?

It seems un­likely. – The Con­ver­sa­tion Chris Saun­ders is Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor, UCT, and Hen­ning Mel­ber is Ex­tra­or­di­nary Pro­fes­sor, Depart­ment of Po­lit­i­cal Sciences, Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria

UN­TOUCH­ABLE?: Zim­bab­wean Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe and Pres­i­dent Jacob Zuma at a re­cent sum­mit of the SADC. The writ­ers say it seems un­likely that the re­gional body would be per­suaded by Ecowas in­ter­ven­tion in The Gam­bia to act against its own.

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