Time for SADC to Admit Defeat in Madagascar as It Has, Effectively, in Zimbabwe

One sometimes wonders if the Southern African Development Community (SADC) should not simply give up the time-consuming and unrewarding business of trying to resolve political crises in its member states.

After five years of intensive SADC mediation in Zimbabwe, first led by then President Thabo Mbeki and thereafter by President Jacob Zuma, what has been achieved? Parliamentary and presidential elections that will be held on 31 July 2013 under essentially the same conditions as the violent and almost certainly rigged elections of March 2008, which prompted SADC’s intervention.

Perhaps President Robert Mugabe will tone down the violence because he thinks he does not need as much to beat the rather hapless Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, this time around. But if so, it will be no thanks to SADC. Mugabe still has full control of all the hard power in Zimbabwe, including its security apparatus, which is still fully partisan to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

Likewise, the public media - essentially all the broadcast media and most of the papers - is also still fully and unashamedly biased towards ZANU-PF. The Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) ostensibly has one or two independent commissioners, but not only do ZANU-PF supporters outnumber them, the ZEC is essentially being run by the same group of officials present at the 2008 elections and set to conduct the upcoming ones in July 2013. That is assuming the ZEC does in fact conduct the election. The deep suspicion is that it will be run behind the scenes by the army, as done previously, apparently.

Tsvangirai is fighting this election with both hands tied behind his back and his legs hobbled. Zuma raised hopes of meaningful change when he took Mbeki’s place in mediating the Zimbabwe negotiations for SADC. He - and particularly his no- nonsense foreign policy adviser, Lindiwe Zulu - talked straight to Mugabe and insisted on real reforms to level the political playing field. But in the end, it seems as if the pair succeeded only in irritating Mugabe. In June 2013, at Zuma and Zulu’s insistence, SADC leaders asked the Zimbabwe Constitutional Court - clearly just another Mugabe instrument - to postpone the poll so as to allow time for the many necessary reforms. It predictably rejected what was no more than a polite request.

SADC could do nothing about this humiliating rebuff because it is not equipped to truly confront Mugabe and make him answer for his behaviour. It is showing the same reluctance to confront Madagascar’s de facto leader Andry Rajoelina. In 2009, when he ousted Marc Ravalomanana, SADC should have already insisted that Rajoelina give up power. Instead, it let him stay on as transitional leader. It issued firm declarations that he should allow Ravalomanana to return from exile in South Africa in order to participate in the next elections. SADC also inserted a mealy-mouthed escape clause, respecting Madagascar’s judicial sovereignty, and in effect telling Rajoelina that he could arrest and imprison Ravalomanana if he returned, as the latter had been convicted and sentenced in absentia for alleged complicity in the shooting of protesters.

Since it could not muster the courage or conviction to do the right thing - which was to force Rajoelina not to run for office (in violation of SADC and African Union rules) and to allow Ravalomanana to do so instead - SADC resorted to the so-called ‘ni-ni’ option. This meant that neither of the two bitter rivals would run for office. In December 2012 and January 2013 respectively, Ravalomanana and Rajoelina accepted the ‘ni-ni’ deal, and the problem, at least from SADC’s perspective, seemed to have been resolved.

But then Ravalomanana put his wife, Lalao, forward as a candidate for his political movement, in so doing prompting Rajoelina to renege on the ‘ni-ni’ deal and enter the presidential race. And so did former president Didier Ratsiraka - along with about 40 other candidates. However, both Lalao Ravalomanana and Ratsiraka did not meet the legal requirement, which states that candidates need to have lived in Madagascar at least six months prior to an election, and Rajoelina also broke the law by missing the deadline for submitting his candidacy. Yet the electoral court accepted all three of them as candidates anyway.

Now SADC and the African Union (AU) are demanding that the three candidates withdraw from the election, and have vowed not to recognise any of them if they are elected. They and the international community are also refusing to fund the poll, and are even threatening to slap personal travel and financial sanctions on the candidates if they fail to pull out of the election - something SADC and the AU never contemplated doing with Mugabe.

The International Contact Group on Madagascar (ICG‐M), led by AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Ramtane Lamamra, and SADC’s mediator, Joaquim Chissano, visited Madagascar to try to persuade the three controversial candidates to withdraw from the elections. They evidently had a heated meeting with Lalao Ravalomanana and her supporters, who refused to back down. Evidently, the other two also rebuffed this request. According to the Ravalomanana people, Chissano openly told them that what they really wanted was for Rajoelina to withdraw from the presidential race - and that Lalao Ravalomanana had to be ‘sacrificed’ for this to happen.

If that is true, it would epitomise the disingenuous and frankly cowardly approach of SADC, confirming that it cannot confront the real problem, Rajoelina, the same way in which it has ultimately failed to confront the real problem in Zimbabwe, namely Mugabe. Threatening sanctions against the three erring candidates in Madagascar looks, at least on the surface, to be a good thing, a sign that SADC and the AU are at last baring their teeth to enforce their decisions. But this tougher resolve is misdirected in Madagascar. If the three candidates pull out now, there will be no one to represent the Ravalomanana political movement in the elections. Perhaps the same would be true of Rajoelina’s movement, although there are suspicions that it has at least one other secret candidate in the race. Having failed to remove Rajoelina directly, SADC should back down, accepting Rajoelina, Lalao Ravalomanana and Ratsiraka as candidates.

This arrangement, though unsatisfactory, seems to be an acceptable compromise to the main rival camps, more particularly to Marc Ravalomanana, who is the most aggrieved party.

The infringements by the three candidates are technicalities that SADC, the AU, and the international community can surely afford to ignore - having condoned much greater violations by Rajoelina. It is time for SADC to admit its impotence and let the Malagasy go ahead with an election most of them seem to want.

- Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa. This article first appeared on the Institute for Security Studies website.

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