President Mugabe’s tenure as chairman of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) ended with little fuss in Gaborone, Botswana this week. When he was appointed chair at the 34th Summit in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe in August last year, his government undertook regionally unprecedented self-celebrations.
The state controlled media was awash with praises of the milestone import of such an appointment. Government officials also began to refer to the Zimbabwean President by all of his full regional office bearer titles which incidentally also included, as of January this year, chairing the African Union.
Such excitement could be viewed, with hindsight, as understandable. Zimbabwe had been a crisis spot for SADC since the turn of the century and had never been accorded such a role since then.
In fact the regional body had to establish a mediation process under the aegis of former South African President Thabo Mbeki in 2007 to help solve the political impasse between the ruling Zanu Pf party and the mainstream opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). This mediation led to the establishment of an inclusive government in 2009 after disputed elections in the preceding year. It was a government that was to be under SADC supervision for the next five years while the belligerents Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai shared power.
So Zimbabwe had not been in any political position to be granted the ceremonial role of SADC Chairman. It is only in the aftermath of the surprising but regionally endorsed 2013 electoral victory of Zanu Pf that this became a possibility. With the country off the regional crisis agenda, the Zimbabwean government was only too happy to insist on being given such a role.
So the essential success of Mugabe’s full tenure as SADC chair has been to bring Zimbabwe in from the cold. And even then, with diplomatic caution.
This is because his tenure is more a SADC diplomatic victory than it would be his own or that of the Zimbabwe’s ruling party. No matter how the latter tries to spin it.
The regional body demonstrated its intention to solve its own crises as far as possible without being put under pressure by the broader international community. Zimbabwe’s return to what are essentially routine regional roles were the final fulfillment of this intention. At least from a regional perspective. This would also explain why again Southern African states were willing to allow Mugabe to become their candidate for chair of the continental body, the African Union.
Some evidence of this can be found in former mediator Thabo Mbeki’s assertions that at one point during the height of the Zimbabwean crisis, former British premier Tony Blair had asked about the possibilities of a military intervention.
Furthermore a former South African presidential advisor, Frank Chikane in his memoir makes the inference that the broader international community was not happy with the SADC mediation process and expected it to fail.
So there was a lot at stake from a SADC perspective at a time when liberal interventionism was a key aspect of global superpower foreign policy. That it eventually occurred in Libya with now unforeseen consequences vindicates SADC in terms of its diplomatic efforts to keep the region relatively stable.
This however does not make SADC as radically Pan- Africanist as its member state, Zimbabwe. Most of the programmes and protocols it has been signing are in keeping with global trends of free market economics and infrastructural development. Even under Mugabe’s now ended tenure. Nor has any other current member state followed Zimbabwe’s example of radical fast track land reform and indigenization policies.
They have however stuck by their seemingly stubborn mantra of ‘African solutions to African problems' when it comes political crises in the sub-region.
It is in this light that as Mugabe’s term of office as Chairman of SADC ends that the majority of member states will want to be acknowledged. And it is a template that regional political powerhouses such as South Africa, Angola and Tanzania may want to use elsewhere, if the need arises.
For all the attempts at demonstrating his tenure as SADC Chairman was deserved, Mugabe’s government would be better reminded that it was more an intention to keep the international community at bay. Especially from the region in what with hindsight must be viewed as an exercise in stubborn diplomacy. Even if at the cost of delaying the further democratization of Zimbabwe. But for now, in the eyes of the region, Zimbabwe is firmly back to being a normal country again.