Democracy Outlook for SADC Region

The SADC region which is currently emerging from the strict measures to contain COVID-19, continues to grapple and be plagued by challenges of governance, democracy consolidation, security challenges and nation-building in its various states. The maturation of democracy in the region has been neither uniform nor straightforward with a mix of false starts, stalled transitions and what can be referred to as democratic recession. This year two countries are headed to the polls and a few more to follow in 2023.

SADC as a regional bloc has shown itself to have limits in vision and strategy when it comes to sustainable solutions for political stability and inclusive governance in the region. The degree of political stability in the region varies on a sliding scale with the most instability manifesting in the form of violent extremism in Mozambique and the least coming out as fragile democracies like Zambia, Malawi, Botswana and South Africa.

Angola and Lesotho head to the polls this year. For Lesotho, elections have so far failed to yield political stability. Each successive government since the military rule has struggled to control the levers of power. The ruling coalitions have been fractured and the recent ousting of Tom Thabane weakened the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) coalition which held the promise of stability. The current Prime Minister has survived a couple of attempts to remove him so far with the latest being a vote of no confidence which was supported by his own party., All this takes place against the backdrop of a SADC intervention on national reforms that has all but stalled. The Basotho are keeping their fingers crossed for the government to stay intact until the election later this year in September.  

The SADC initiative has been slow and has yet to yield tangible results. In the first instance, there appears to be a lack of respect and faith in SADC by the coalition members in the Lesotho government. A case in point is the prosecution of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) leader Mothetjoa Metsing.  SADC had suggested a stay in prosecution would create a conducive environment for engagement with all parties to push through with reforms first. In response, Lesotho authorities have stated that they are not bound by SADC and the prosecution will go ahead. This throws into jeopardy SADC’s efforts at building trust and good faith among the parties.

The Prime Minister is without the backing of his own party is unlikely to provide the leadership to support the SADC initiative. As the country heads for elections without key reforms tabled by SADC, there is little hope of credible polls and political stability thereafter.

In Angola, the country is set for the polls end of this year. This comes after the country failed to hold its first local government elections in 2020 under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions. The political parties and CSOs had been eager for the local elections which have not been held since the constitution made provisions for them over three decades ago. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) is struggling with the notion of political plurality and still returns to its tendencies of clamping down on civic space and muzzling dissenting voices even under a new President.

DRC, Eswatini and Zimbabwe head to the polls in 2023.

For Eswatini protests against the current traditional monarchical government continue to intensify, with calls for an inclusive dialogue process appearing not to be seriously heeded. The question that SADC is seized with is, are the inevitable political changes desired by the citizens going to be attained by way of radical acts, negotiations, guided transition or a truly inclusive dialogue process. The question further extends to what, if anything, would motivate the monarchy to become agents of change? A zero-sum game for Eswatini where the monarch is abolished, and the king relinquishes all power is unlikely to yield results. At this moment the monarch doesn’t feel that its existence is under real threat, and it won’t budge

In the case of Zimbabwe, democratic institutions remain weak and ruling party profligacy is rife. The launch of a new political party, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has sent significant shockwaves, breathing life into multi-party democracy in the country. The recent by-election held in March, saw the new party gain some parliamentary and local government seats. The real test however is the 2023 harmonised elections. The opposition needs to have a clear position on what constitutes institutional reforms or electoral reforms. This is a critical look at gaps looking at the letter and spirit of the electoral act as well as the management of election by ZEC. Secondly, they need a solid voter mobilisation strategy that includes professionalising their election campaign processes and greater use of data and evidence in building a robust campaign strategy.

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Felix Tshisekedi heads into the elections in 2023 with yet another shacky coalition after ditching Kabila. President Tshisekedi has the reins of government with the support of a new alliance, the ‘Sacred Union’. While this move firmly established the Tshisekedi presidency, it has at the same time exposed the fragility of the elite pacts in the DRC.  What is more, the steps towards creating a new alliance were fraught with some degree of manipulation. For instance, the floor-crossing of deputies was only made possible by a controversial court ruling.

The new alliance started off on shaky grounds. Moise Katumbi has since departed from the alliance, setting the stage for his 2023 presidential bid.  Power jostling among the alliance members is likely to interfere with any attempt at meaningful reforms that could put the DRC on a firm footing towards stability.

For sustained democratic gains, DRC needs to strengthen key institutions such as the judiciary, the security services, and the electoral management body. Unfortunately, Tshisekedi’s decision to appoint his ally to head CENI casts doubts on the electoral processes.

Mozambique has been ravaged by violent insurgents in its Northern Province. This crisis compounds the already delicate political situation between FRELIMO and RENAMO.  While the armed conflict has been restricted to the Northern Province, its destabilising effect has ripped through the country and exposed the capacity limitations of the state. Initially, the Mozambican government had approached private security companies and a few countries on bilateral terms for assistance. It took the Maputo government nearly three years to formally bring the matter before SADC. This seems to indicate a lack of confidence in the regional body’s capacity to respond and deal with violent extremism. The SADC’s response though delayed, was to set up a mission, the Southern African Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM).   

South Africa – The country exposes more governance limitations than fragility in its democratic consolidation. While the country by and large exhibits strong democratic institutions. However, state capacity to deliver in the face of economic inertia, inequality and growing restlessness has seen the country’s democratic credentials being tested. The events of July 2021 revealed the simmering tensions and frustrations of people. The failure of the democracy in SA to satisfy the aspirations of the marginalised majority is threatening the democratic dividends. The ANC’s forthcoming conference might see some surprising tectonic shifts as individuals and factions realign with other parties outside of the ANC to push for their agenda. As a result of domestic pressures, South Africa appears to be slackening at a regional level.

Zambia and Malawi would represent maturing democracies, where citizens have had the opportunity to change governments with some level of ease. The recent rocky transitions in Malawi and the excesses of Edgar Lungu showed that democracy is fragile and constantly under threat, and without sound institutions gains can be reversed. Citizen agency and strong independent institutions are the bulwarks of democracy against reactionary elements. Potentially these two countries could play a key role as change agents and champions for SADC’s quest to entrench democratic culture in the region. The jury, however, is still out.

SADC’s lack of firm standpoint on political stability and its internal limitations are revealed through the multiple crisis points in the region.

Democracy Outlook for SADC Region
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