The unfolding political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe has put the spotlight on the chairman of SADC, President of Botswana Ian Khama, presenting the toughest challenge to his leadership of the regional bloc before he vacates office next month. How Khama intervenes to save Zimbabwe from imploding under his watch is a litmus test that will either earn him international accolades or make him an accomplice in Zimbabweans’ suffering. It presents him with an opportunity to create a lasting legacy, if he is decisive. Asked for the position of government and President Khama on Friday, government spokesperson Dr Jeff Ramsay said "we are currently monitoring the developments". The surge in protests across different parts of Zimbabwe, which have turned violent, came about because of increasing economic hardships, unpaid salaries, skyrocketing unemployment and mismanagement by the government of President Robert Mugabe – the immediate past SADC and African Union (AU) chairman. The protests threaten to bring the already struggling former Southern African economic powerhouse to total collapse, under the stewardship of Mugabe who has resisted attempts to remove him from power since taking over from minority rulers in 1980. The 92-year-old leader was returned to power under a controversial election characterised by violence and widespread rigging in 2008.
Khama is Mugabe’s biggest critic
Khama was Mugabe's biggest critic after the controversial 2008 presidential elections and at some point Botswana – through the then foreign affairs minister Phandu Skelemani – refused to recognise him as president. However, as time progressed the two heads of state softened their hardline stance. The two presidents sit on the SADC Troika – a collective decision making organ, together with next chairman King Mswati of Swaziland. It will be interesting to see how the SADC Troika, with Khama at the helm, will tread the treacherous ground that is the Zimbabwe crises, which has become a hot potato for the bloc over the years. Botswana stuck out as the odd one out when Khama openly criticised Mugabe for atrocities visited on Zimbabweans pre and post 2008, with the rest of the leaders choosing to mollycoddle the man once credited for liberating the country from white minority rule. The effect of long standing sanctions by the international community, particularly sources of aid, are beginning to be felt by all sectors of Zimbabwe’s population.
Zim’s social media revolution
The latest uprising, with all the hallmarks of the Arab Spring - organised on social media platforms, is compounded by frustrations over rapidly deteriorating economic conditions in Zimbabwe aggravated by a recent ban on a wide range of imports to reduce the import bill and protect struggling local industries. It is now illegal to import coffee creamers, camphor creamers, white petroleum jellies, body lotion, and fabrics of cotton containing 85 % or more by weight of cotton weighing not more than 200g per square metre. The ban further imposes restrictions on importation of many food items, construction and furniture products among others.
Region braces for immigrants
Despite the ban, Zimbabwe does not have sufficient local industries to support the economy and the ban is believed to be effected to benefit businesses close to political leaders. Already retail giant Choppies has been targeted by the protesters. As the effect of the ban hits home, neighbouring countries should brace themselves for problems of illegal immigration, and influx of economic refugees fleeing from starvation and persecution by security agents. "It is obvious that the immediate impact will be on countries that share the border with Zimbabwe. Such influx of economic refugees into neighbouring countries similar to the aftermath of 2008 elections could trigger problems like escalating crime and xenophobic attacks emanating from fears that Zimbabweans are providing cheap labour taking jobs from locals, etc," says Political Science lecturer in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Botswana, Dr Gabriel Malebang.
He says it is too early to tell how long the protests and the downward spiral will continue but the leadership has an opportunity to arrest the situation if they reconsider the sanctions. He says it is important to note that the current protests are based on bread and butter issues, which affects the whole population. Unlike the post 2008 election protests economic challenges in Zimbabwe cut across tribal divisions of Shonas and Ndebeles. "Maybe a revolution is in the offing," he quips. Dr Malebang says if Zimbabwe implodes it will be a blow to an economy that was beginning to show signs of recovery, and it will add to problems the sub-continent is already trying to contend with. He is however is not convinced that SADC will deal effectively with Mugabe because "Zimbabwe has had its own unique narrative in the region. The narrative of liberation credentials, which was used to purge critics of Mugabe's rule. Zimbabwe is led by one of the respected elders in the region. Mugabe's personality, clout and influence could have a bearing on what happens next. Also, Khama has made peace with Mugabe lately".
To buttress the point, Dr Malebang draws a comparison between SADC's swift action to address political unrest in the smaller Lesotho and Madagascar, where the leadership of the bloc cracked the whip. Such may not be possible with the big brother, Zimbabwean, he says. He, however, opines that SADC may be forced to act due to fatigue it has suffered in the past, expending a lot of time and resources trying to resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe. "But what avenues do they have?" he asks rhetorically. Civil society organisations under the banner of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition on Tuesday slammed the government for using violence against peaceful protesters in the country, saying the police and other state security agents should uphold the rule of law and respect people’s rights to freely express themselves. The grouping further called on the African Union (AU) and SADC to intervene. The organisations demand that government repeal all anti-people policies and legislation that had resulted in the violent protests, adding that the state should also immediately pay its workers, who included teachers, nurses, doctors and others, their full salaries. “It is criminal for government to abuse its resources and power to crush ordinary citizens as being observed in the Beitbridge, Epworth, Mabvuku and other areas where protests are under way,” the group’s spokesperson, Stern Zvorwadza said.
The National Election Reform Agenda (NERA), a grouping of progressive political parties fighting for electoral reform in Zimbabwe, said they fully support the spontaneous mass action by Zimbabweans over the past few days. “For NERA, the root cause of these problems is the crisis of legitimacy itself created by unfree and unfair elections. Therefore, the only answer is a change of government through free and fair elections. We will continue to support this mass action until people’s demands are met,” the grouping said. [Additional reporting from African News Agency (ANA)]