Zimbabwe: Regional leaders' meeting a "non-event"

DAR ES SALAAM, 30 March 2007 (IRIN)

  • Analysts have dismissed a regional summit called to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe as a "non-event" after leaders at the two-day Southern African Development Community (SADC) extraordinary summit in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, resolved to curb political confrontation in the country ahead of next year's elections.

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, who heads SADC's security arm, told a press conference late on Thursday that the summit had asked South African President Thabo Mbeki to lead the task of promoting dialogue between Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The summit followed running battles between pro-democracy activists and the police in Zimbabwe, in which an opposition supporter was shot dead by police, and opposition leaders, including Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC, were arrested and allegedly beaten in custody earlier this month. Major news channels across the world have shown images of their injuries.

Zimbabwe has been simmering for the past two months, but the situation has taken a violent turn since the police imposed a ban on political rallies in February. Strikes and protests to highlight the worsening economic situation have now given way to bombings of police stations, a passenger train and a supermarket, among other targets across the country.

"You have the opposition complaining of infringement on their rights, and on the other hand the government accusing the opposition of violence and disobedience of the law," said Kikwete. "The situation is not good both ways and SADC has decided to act."

John Makumbe, a Zimbabwe-based political analyst, commented: "The outcome of the summit was quite disappointing for the people of Zimbabwe. There was no mention of human rights abuse by the state machinery, let alone any condemnation. The appointment of Mbeki, who has already failed to make any headway with his approach of 'quiet diplomacy' over the past six years, amounts to nothing."

Deputy chair of the SADC, Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa, recently 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."

Brian Raftopoulos, a Zimbabwean academic and African affairs specialist at the South Africa-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, said he was "not surprised" that the regional leaders had chosen solidarity over any rebuke. "By attempting to show solidarity at any cost, SADC has sent a wrong message by showing disregard to human rights abuses, which will have negative consequences for democracy in the region."

He pointed out there was no timetable announced for the dialogue process, nor "do we know how different the mediation process is going to be from the last time."

Mediation fatigue

Mbeki indicated in 2006 that he had grown increasingly weary of trying to resolve Zimbabwe's political crisis. He told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that in 2004 his 'quiet diplomacy' policy towards Zimbabwe had almost resulted in a deal between the ruling ZANU-PF and the MDC on a new constitution.

"They were actually involved in negotiating a new constitution for Zimbabwe, and they ... completed it ... they gave me a copy initialled by everybody ... so we thought the next step then must be to say, 'where do we take this process?'. But then ... new problems arose among themselves. So we watch the situation and, to the extent that we can help in future, we will," Mbeki said.

"They asked us to assist, to mend relations among themselves. It didn't work. We tried to intervene but I think the rupture had gone too far," he added.

Last year Benjamin Mkapa, a former Tanzanian head of state, was asked by regional leaders to help find a solution to the divide between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and an opposition that rejects the legitimacy of his government. Mkapa took over from former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano, and Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo, among others, who have all failed to make headway in promoting dialogue in Zimbabwe over the past few years.

The SADC's executive secretary, Tomaz Salamao, has been asked to undertake a study on the economic situation in Zimbabwe and propose measures for how the regional body can help the country recover.

Kikwete said the SADC was also appealing to the international community to lift sanctions and accommodate Zimbabwe, instead of isolating the country.

"Diplomatic relations between Zimbabwe, the European Community and the United States are not healthy," he said. The meeting also reiterated that Britain should honour its compensation obligations regarding land reforms, made at the Lancaster House constitutional conference that culminated in Zimbabwe's independence in 1980.

Zimbabwe's chaotic fast-track land reform programme, launched in 2000, nationalised all agricultural land and then leased around 4,000 previously white-owned commercial farms to landless blacks for 99 years. The programme, condemned by Western governments for its forced evictions, slashed the country's foreign exchange earnings and helped trigger the current economic crisis.

The Zimbabwean government has maintained that it is unable to compensate former commercial farmers for the land because it does not have the money, but that it will pay for improvements on the land, such as dams and other infrastructure.

UN appeals for funds

Rashid Khalikov, New York Director of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, appealed to the Security Council on Thursday for more funds to help Zimbabwe meet the challenges posed by a 'triple threat' of food insecurity combined with a high incidence of HIV/AIDS and declining social services.

Aid agencies estimate that 1.8 million metric tonnes of maize are needed to feed the people of Zimbabwe, yet this year's harvest will only provide 300,000mt.

Although the country's authorities have announced that an additional 400,000 metric tons of maize will be distributed, "the current economic situation and the level of currency reserves gives us some cause for concern as to the ability of the government to bring this food in, and distribute it in a timely manner", Khalikov told reporters after the closed-door meeting.

Around 1.8 million Zimbabweans, or 18 percent of the population, have HIV/AIDS, but only 50,000 have access to antiretroviral therapy treatment when at least 350,000 must be treated to contain the disease, he pointed out. The government has made a commitment to increase the number of people receiving treatment, but "there is a lot of concern over the capacity of the government, and the health services are in quite poor shape", he said.

Khalikov said he told the 15-member Security Council that of the $240 million needed to meet humanitarian needs in Zimbabwe, only 13 percent had been contributed, and most of it has been channelled into the food sector.

As a result, "education, water and sanitation, and health have not been properly covered, therefore, the United Nations is not in a position to provide assistance to the population of Zimbabwe in a comprehensive way".

He added that the government's urban eviction campaign (Operation Murambatsvina, 'Clean Out Trash', in 2005) and land-reform programmes had "exacerbated the situation on the ground, and makes the position of those who are most vulnerable even more difficult".

The Zimbabwean government has requested that a joint assessment by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the UN World Food Programme be undertaken to determine the exact food needs of the country, and then to fashion a response to the problem.

Khalikov said this assessment would most likely be carried out in April and May.