SADC summit dodges discussing big issues in public

Zambian President Edgar Lungu and his cabinet during the

Important regional decisions ought to have been made at the 40th ordinary summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on Monday. Like whether to send a SADC force into Mozambique to help that country fight and contain a jihadist insurgency in the north. And how to stop the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe from unravelling and spilling over into the region.

The SADC is not good at making big decisions at the best of times. And holding the organisation’s first virtual summit under Covid-19 conditions was not the best of times. Diplomatic sources told Daily Maverick that the governments of the 16 member states had decided beforehand not to discuss sensitive issues – like Mozambique and Zimbabwe – remotely for fear of security breaches.

But even within those severe constraints it was an unilluminating gathering. As usual with such summits, even before Covid-19, most of it took place in camera. Or perhaps, one should say in these strange times, off-camera. But the opening and closing ceremonies were supposed to be open. Yet the transmission was so atrocious that it was almost impossible to hear what anyone said at the opening ceremony.

Either the closing ceremony didn’t happen, or if it did, it wasn’t transmitted. Or not so anyone could pick it up. There was no press conference, which was not surprising. There is no reason – apart perhaps from the likely terrible transmission – why SADC couldn’t have held a virtual press conference. But like some other organisations, SADC had obviously decided to use Covid-19 as a cover for keeping the media and the public safely distant not only from possible infection, but also from any sensitive information.

Mozambique was first referenced in the communique after the summit, obliquely when it said, “Summit received an Assessment Report on emerging Security Threats in the Region, commended the Secretariat for the Detailed Report, and directed the Secretariat to prepare an action plan for its implementation, that will among others, prioritize measures to combat terrorism, violent attacks and cybercrime; and to address adverse effects of climate change.”

More directly, the communique said, “Summit welcomed the decision by the Government of the Republic of Mozambique to bring to the attention of SADC the violent attacks situation in the country, and commended the country for its continued efforts towards combating terrorism and violent attacks.

“Summit expressed SADC solidarity and commitment to support Mozambique in addressing the terrorism and violent attacks, and condemned all acts of terrorism and armed attacks.”

This really took matters no further than the statement after SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security had met in Harare and also expressed SADC’s “solidarity and commitment” to support Mozambique’s fight against the jihadist insurgency in the north of the country – but without offering specifics.

There was no reference to Zimbabwe at all in Monday’s communique.

Given the solidarity that exists among SADC’s 16 governments, that was not really surprising. Particularly as regional crises are dealt with, in the first place, by the Organ on Political, Defence and Security. The organ’s summit took place on Friday and it was chaired by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, as Zimbabwe was then chairing the organ. So it’s hardly surprising that Zimbabwe didn’t come up.

But, even relative to the usual SADC silence on regional controversies, this SADC summit was a bland non-event, not only publicly but apparently even privately.

“It was agreed in advance that security-related matters would not be discussed virtually,” a seasoned regional diplomat explained to Daily Maverick.

“Both Mozambique and Zimbabwe are too sensitive for both governments to allow discussion. Mnangagwa would clearly be conflicted.

“SADC is too wedded to ‘trench solidarity’ to constructively discuss Zimbabwe with the participation of the opposition.”

SADC Executive Secretary Stergomena Lawrence Tax told the summit – in remarks thankfully released as a written statement – that although Covid-19 control measures in the region had been largely successful, “sadly, we are now witnessing a surge, especially in local transmissions and an increase in casualties in some of our member states”.

The summit did discuss less sensitive matters. It reiterated SADC’s position on the reconfiguration of the Force Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “as submitted to the UN Secretary-General, which, among others, emphasizes that the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) should not be tampered with”.

The Force Intervention Brigade, comprising infantry battalions from each of three SADC countries, South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi, as well as other support elements, has been stationed in the eastern DRC for the past seven years. It has a more “robust” mandate than the rest of the UN peacekeeping mission which it is part of, and is tasked with protecting local civilians and stabilising the area by aggressively “neutralising” the various armed rebel groups which terrorise the area.

After initial success in defeating the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels, the FIB has been relatively inactive and some nations in the UN Security Council have called for it to be scaled down. This is what SADC is opposing.

The communique also said the summit received a report on the DRC-Zambia border dispute (which has caused considerable tensions), “and commended the Governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Zambia for their commitment to resolve the border issue amicably”.

SADC Executive Secretary Stergomena Lawrence Tax told the summit – in remarks thankfully released as a written statement – that although Covid-19 control measures in the region had been largely successful, “sadly, we are now witnessing a surge, especially in local transmissions and an increase in casualties in some of our member states”.

And she said that a review by the secretariat had shown that while SADC economic integration had progressed, this was not enough. SADC economies remained “undiversified, with a growing dependency on natural resources and export of unprocessed commodities characterized by a stagnant industrial sector.

“Natural resource-based sectors, including Agriculture and Mining, still account for on average 25% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Total intra-SADC trade stood at 19.3% in 2018, significantly less than other regions.”

The findings underline the importance of ratifying and implementing the SADC Protocol on Industry, yet only Seychelles had ratified it so far.

The summit also “extended its appreciation to the Government of the Republic of Mozambique for using innovative ways to convene the 40th Ordinary Summit in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Innovative, perhaps. Effective? Not so much. Daily Marverick