Zimbabwe and Mugabe top the agenda at southern Africa summit

The Southern African Development Community will not call on Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to cede power. But by insisting on fair elections, it may push Mugabe into a corner nonetheless.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP/File
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is seen in this March 27 file photo, in Harare, Zimbabwe.

When 14 heads of state from southern Africa gather today in Johannesburg for a full meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the ever unstable political situation in Zimbabwe will be at the top of the agenda. Activists gathered outside will likely call on the SADC to urge fellow SADC member Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to step down from power, just as the African Union suggested to Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi.

That won't happen, of course, but if the SADC comes up with a roadmap for holding free and fair elections in Zimbabwe next year, it may end up having the same effect due to Mr. Mugabe's dwindling domestic support.

The SADC summit on Zimbabwe will coincide with a larger summit with two other regional groupings, the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the East African Community (EAC), and analysts expect leaders at this summit are likely to raise issues on fair trade and free movement of people among Africa's three regional groupings.

All 14 SADC heads of state led by Jacob Zuma of South Africa will be present except for Madagascar, which has been expelled by SADC after a 2009 coup d'etat.

The summit comes amid heightened political violence in Zimbabwe where an attempt on Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Finance Minister Tendai Biti was foiled over the weekend. Mugabe, for his part, accuses the opposition MDC -- which has no military wing, no say in military or intelligence affairs, and no control over Zimbabwe police agencies -- of killing a senior cop in the capital of Harare last week.

Both parties deny responsibilities in the attempted assassination and killing. But their constant bickering, which began from the first day of the new power-sharing government in early 2009, has reached such a level that many ZANU-PF insiders say that snap elections could be called as soon as this year.

If the 2008 elections are a gauge, then Zimbabweans are in for a violent election season. The March 2008 elections were marked by violence against members of Mr. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, both before and during the polling. But even so, voters made clear that they were fed up with Mugabe's ZANU-PF, whose last decade in power oversaw severe economic decline, hunger, joblessness, and capital flight. In the first round of polling, Tsvangirai's MDC took control of parliament with 99 seats to ZANU-PF's 97 seats. Eleven months of stalemate, where Mugabe refused to allow Tsvangirai to take power or name a cabinet, ended in a power-sharing government, negotiated by the SADC.

The SADC, like most regional organizations on the continent, generally refuses to interfere in domestic politics of any of its member nations, and experts say that its track record tends to reflect a desire to support current leaders at all cost, even if doing so threatens the security of the region. For this reason, opposition figures like Tsvangirai -- who ran against Mugabe in March 2008 elections -- accuse the SADC of favoring Mugabe during negotiations on power-sharing. Few expect this tendency to change in the current meeting.

The shaky Zimbabwe unity government is threatened with collapse following an increased breakdown of the rule of law, political violence, as well as the attempted seizure of private companies by members of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.

Mugabe's party is pushing for a law to enable it to seize 51 percent stake from foreign owned companies, among them banks, mines, and factories. The opposition MDC -- which has a base of voter support from white-owned businessmen and black-majority trade unions -- insists the law will be counter productive.

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