After 37 years Robert Mugabe has lost his grip on power. Divisions in the ruling ZANU-PF party had emerged between factions led by former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Mugabe’s wife Grace. Grace Mugabe’s rise challenged traditional power brokers who played an active role in the war for independence and this military takeover appears to be their move to ensure their interests are protected in a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.
The African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) both aspire to play a role in reinforcing good governance and rule of law among their member states. So how will they react to recent events in Zimbabwe and what role are they likely to have in shaping its trajectory?
An Inconsistent Record
SADC has shown an inconsistent willingness to intervene in member states in periods of instability. It has intervened in Lesotho three times in 1998, 2014, and 2017 during period of instability. But intervening in Lesotho is not necessarily indicative of future policy towards other, larger member states.
When presented with larger challenges SADC has not appeared as willing to actively intervene. SADC’s largest member, the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been experiencing a slow motion constitutional crisis since fall of 2016 and as time passes and President Kabila’s intentions to remain and repression of dissent becomes more brazen SADC has failed to take any concreate action. At its most recent annual summit in August the organization failed to set a deadline for the perpetually delayed elections. SADC should not be expected to ensure constitutional rule in the DRC by force, but there are a multitude of intermediate steps the organization could take to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law, but has not.
The African Union has a strong record of condemning coups and suspending member states until they return to constitutional rule. In the recent past it has done so with Madagascar, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Research shows this has played an important role in institutionalizing anti-coup norms which has led to a significant reduction in the rate of African coups. But while sub-regional bodies have done so (such as ECOWAS’ intervention in Gambia in January), the AU has not demonstrated a willingness to use force to restore constitutional order in member states.
Shaping the Way Forward
So what do these regional bodies have to say about the current situation in Zimbabwe? Not much. SADC has “noted with great concern” events in Zimbabwe and plans to send an envoy. For its part, the AU has released a statement saying the situation in Zimbabwe “looks like a coup” and expressing “serious concern.” These tepid statements do not indicate any robust action in the near future. But how, realistically, might these regional organizations shape events in Zimbabwe in the weeks, months and years to come? While nothing is impossible in moments of such volatility, reversing the facts on the ground by force would likely entail and unacceptable level of conflict. However, they can help to nudge events in a productive direction in the near future.
In the coming days these organizations can put pressure on those in power in Harare to maintain civilian safety and refrain from violence against the defeated faction of ZANU-PF. Coup leaders know they have a public image advantage over other coup plotters because their target was not a beloved democratic reformer, but one of Africa’s most brutal autocrats. It should be made clear to them that their position will be made much more difficult if the relatively peaceful coup turns into a factional bloodbath.
In the weeks to come regional pressure may also help shape the next steps in Zimbabwean politics. The African Union has demonstrated its willingness to tolerate military takeovers from autocratic leaders if coup leaders then quickly signal a return to civilian rule. This pattern was demonstrated in the 2014 overthrow of Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso which was quickly followed by the announcement of elections and a transitional government. Regional bodies should exert all possible influence to push for recent events to serve as an opportunity for new elections rather than the simple victory of one autocratic faction over another.
In the long-term, these regional organizations will play a critical role in encouraging incremental reforms. Coup leaders have not released anything clear statements of policy, but the announcement of the military takeover did include references to facilitating investment and rebuilding the nation’s economy. To do this, new leaders will need substantial cooperation and assistance from regional states and multilateral organizations. Economic reforms should be encouraged, but assistance on this front should entail conditions that nudge the country towards incremental political reform as well. If this kind of pressure is exerted, coup leaders may find they cannot simply continue one party rule if they wish to revive the nation’s economy.
Regional organizations are unlikely to reverse Zimbabwe’s coup by pure force. They can however, play an important role in shaping how it evolves from here.