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Regional intervention "long time coming"
March 23, 2007

HARARE - Southern Africa is "finally" assuming leadership in trying to resolve the burning Zimbabwean crisis on their doorstep, but it has been a long time coming, said analysts, as three members from a regional powerhouse met in Lesotho to chalk a way forward. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), which has pushed for an approach of "quiet diplomacy" to the Zimbabwean crisis, has increasingly come under fire for failing to wield any influence.

"But the brutal public attack on civic and leaders of the opposition leaders [last week] has forced the private rumblings of discontent over Zimbabwe to become public and break away from their traditional solidarity response," said Brian Raftopoulos, a Zimbabwean academic and African affairs specialist at the South African-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

A Zimbabwean opposition supporter was killed last week, and Morgan Tsvangirai, who leads a faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was among the pro-democracy leaders arrested and beaten by the police, allegedly for inciting violence.

This week, Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa, currently deputy chair of the SADC, broke ranks with the regional body to admit that "quiet diplomacy has failed to help solve the political chaos and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe," and even likened the country to "a sinking Titanic whose passengers are jumping out in a bid to save their lives."

Acknowledging the gravity of the recent outbreak of violence in Zimbabwe, he said Zambia had been forced to re-think its position after "the twist of events in the troubled country", which "necessitates the adoption of a new approach".

Mwanawasa's comments came ahead of a meeting under the auspices of SADC in the Lesotho capital, Maseru, on Thursday and Friday, at which Zambia, Lesotho and Tanzania discussed "how best" the regional organisation could respond, "with a view to helping Zimbabwe in its current difficulties", said Vernon Mwaanga, Zambia's acting foreign minister. Zambia will assume leadership of the SADC in August.

"The meeting, attended by Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, who heads the regional security arm, and Lesotho's Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, who is currently the chair of SADC, and Zambia, looked at several options," added Mwaanga.

These will be put forward at an SADC meeting in Tanzania next week. Kikwete, whose country is one of an SADC 'troika' on Zimbabwe, along with Namibia and Lesotho, met Mugabe a few days ago.

SADC has been in existence since 1980, when it was formed as a loose alliance of nine majority-ruled states in Southern Africa, known as the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) to coordinate development projects to lessen its economic dependence on then apartheid South Africa. Since then the organisation's objectives have evolved into maintaining common political values and promoting peace and security, with a view to boosting development.

Raftopoulos said the SADC should have stamped the "human rights debate" on Zimbabwe as "African" at least seven years ago, when the 2000 general elections had been marred by violence but were endorsed by the SADC as "free and fair".

In 2005 more than 700,000 people were internally displaced by Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out Trash), a three-month campaign to rid the country of slums and illegal informal businesses. Again, the SADC maintained its silence. "Instead, it [SADC] allowed itself to be corned by the Zimbabwean regime into branding the human rights debate as 'Western'," said Raftopoulos.

Chris Maroleng, an analyst with the think-tank, Institute for Security Studies, commented, "SADC has been hamstrung on Zimbabwe, as it has failed to adopt a common position. SADC, as a multilateral forum, failed to engage with Zimbabwe, as members found themselves polarised. Except for smaller countries in the region, such as Botswana and Lesotho, regional powers like South Africa have failed to criticise Zimbabwe. But the gap between the countries has begun to narrow."

Africa's efforts to mediate between Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF and opposition parties have been fruitless: in 2005, the African Union appointed former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano to help solve Zimbabwe's problems; last year the SADC appointed former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa to mediate in the strained relations between Harare and Britain.

Maroleng said the region should now try to create "an enabling environment" in Zimbabwe to create the "political space" for dialogue between the ruling party and civil society.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwean pro-democracy activists have become more vocal. Tension has been mounting in Zimbabwe for the past two months, marked by protests and running battles with the police over a worsening economic crisis compounded by shortages of foreign currency, food, fuel, electricity and medicines. Last month, political meetings were banned in the capital, Harare.

On Thursday, Pius Ncube, the Archbishop of Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, called for mass street protests to force Mugabe to "step down" from power.

Zimbabwean nongovernmental organisations and a coalition of churches have condemned the political violence that has erupted in Zimbabwe in recent weeks, and urged dialogue to restore peace.

The National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO), representing more than 1,000 civil groups throughout the country, said it was concerned by police heavy-handedness when dealing with critics.

NANGO warned that the current political tension could lead to civil unrest, adding that recent violent incidents "have occurred against the backdrop of a politically, socially and economically volatile situation, characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, militarisation of state functions and de-legitimisation of civil society initiatives."

The association called for the establishment of a national human rights commission, which has been on the cards, in addition to lifting the ban on political gatherings, constitutional reform and the "repeal of repressive legislation", while the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) attributed the outbreak of violence on the ban on political meetings.

In a statement on Wednesday the ZCC said, "This orgy of violence, which is attributed to the ban on political gatherings in Harare for three months, is provoking the opposition, especially at this strategic moment when political parties are preparing for the 2008 presidential election."

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