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African leaders embrace Mugabe at SADC summit

The group's soft approach to Zimbabwe's president disappoints many, but some say it may be more effective in engaging him.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 2009

Johannesburg, South Africa

If Zimbabweans expected their country's neighbors to come out strongly against the repressive behavior of their president, Robert Mugabe, at a meeting of regional leaders in Kinshasa this week, then they were sorely mistaken.

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Far from criticizing President Mugabe – who unleashed private militias and government security forces against his political rivals before joining a coalition government with them in February – the members of the Southern Africa Development Community instead chose to adopt Mugabe's call for an end to Western sanctions against his country.

SADC's soft approach to Mugabe will come as a stinging disappointment to Mugabe's rival and coalition partner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who personally lobbied South African President Jacob Zuma to get tougher with Mugabe. Mr. Zuma instead joined the rest of SADC in a warm embrace of the aging leader.

The approach of seeking to bring external pressure to bear on Mugabe is naive, says Steven Friedman, a political analyst and head of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg.

"MDC repeatedly makes the mistake of assuming that their inability to mount sufficient internal pressure will be compensated by external pressure" by groups like SADC, says Mr. Friedman. "The reality is that they're not going to get a decisive push for democracy in Zimbabwe unless there is more coordinated internal pressure inside Zimbabwe."

He adds that the first priority of SADC leaders is to "show solidarity with leaders of other governments."

SADC's decline – and potential revival

Formed specifically so that African leaders could find African solutions for African problems – including solidarity against the racist apartheid government of South Africa – SADC has grown into a kind of Davos summit for the unambitious. Human rights advocates say that by refusing to take hard stands, SADC is missing out on a crucial part of its founding ideals of creating greater social and political justice. But some observers say that SADC is slowly changing, as more and more popularly elected leaders are rubbing shoulders with liberation leaders who gained power through the gun.

"We've seen a subtle shift where people reach positions in government because they were put there, through elections, by a rebellion against the government," says Friedman, noting that long-serving "struggle" leaders like Zimbabwe's Mugabe (29 years) and Angola's Eduardo dos Santos (31 years) are no longer the norm in Southern Africa. "These things don't happen quickly, but there is a relative shift."