August 18, 2013

Jeff Flake, a U.S. senator from Arizona, spent time in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. He is the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on Africa.

When I was a graduate student and Senate intern in the late 1980s, I wrote a master’s thesis that proved to be a rather shallow attempt to explain Robert Mugabe’s hold on the Zimbabwean electorate nearly a decade removed from independence. Twenty-five years later, that hold on the electorate has long since been exposed as brute force and chicanery. What is left to explain is Mugabe’s mystifying hold on the rest of Africa.

Western media and election observers were notably — and forcibly — absent during Zimbabwe’s July 31 contest, but there was a robust presence of election observers from the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Nevertheless, despite clear, abundant and still-mounting evidence of a deeply flawed election process, the AU and SADC seem eager to give a pass to Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party (ZANU-PF). While final reports have yet to be issued, SADC has already declared the Zimbabwe election “free and peaceful,” and the AU has affirmed the vote as “credible.”

Note the absence of the word “fair.” But why quibble? “The whole of Africa is sending us messages of congratulations to say ‘Well done,’ ” was Mugabe’s interpretation. And who can blame him?

That Zimbabwe would have another deeply flawed election is not news to anyone who has followed Mugabe’s ham-handed rule over the past 33 years. But to those who hope that Africa is indeed turning the corner in terms of politics and governance, such a response in the wake of the election is deeply concerning.

There is much to commend in the founding charters and principles of both the AU and SADC. Cooperation and coordination through these institutions has strengthened individual economies and provided a useful tool to address cross-border and regional security and governance issues. The potential for future collaboration is even greater.

Which is why it is so puzzling that the AU and SADC would so willingly jettison their principles when it comes to elections in Zimbabwe. This is not an example of the West holding nascent democracies to unreasonably high electoral standards. It is simply a matter of asking SADC and the AU to abide by their own standards and live up to their charters.

The SADC “Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections” provide for its observer role during member-state elections to ensure “full participation of the citizens in the political process” by certifying, among other things, “the existence of [an] updated and accessible voters roll.” Such rolls were neither updated nor accessible during Zimbabwe’s recent elections.

Likewise, the AU’s guidelines for electoral observations call for “competent accountable electoral institutions” to “take all necessary measures” to ensure such essentials as “equitable access to public media” by competing parties. There was not even a pretense of equitable access to state media during Zimbabwe’s election season.

In the founding document of the “New Partnership for Africa’s Development,” African heads of state hailed the emergence of democratic regimes and committed African leaders taking responsibility for “promoting human rights . . . by developing clear standards of accountability, transparency and participatory governance.” In the context of observing the Zimbabwe elections, only Botswana has been willing to take such responsibility. Botswana decried Zimbabwe’s elections as “not free and fair” and warned that SADC “should never create the undesirable precedent of permitting exceptions to its own rules.”

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe’s course seems set for the near future. By the time official reports on the election are issued, the ZANU-PF will have formed a new government. Zimbabwean courts are unlikely to intervene, and Mugabe will go on making empty speeches about liberation while Zimbabwe, unable to feed itself and having lost its own currency, erodes its independence by the day.

The final reports issued by the AU and SADC won’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Zimbabwe, but they will say a great deal about the direction in which southern Africa as a region, and Africa as a whole, is headed.

Will African leaders be true to their own undertakings and stand for the principles they have espoused, or will they bow to a desperate old man determined to keep himself in power no matter the cost to the citizens he claims to represent?