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SADC's failure to act on SEOM Report portends far reaching implications for legitimacy in the region

By Tiseke Kasambala

On August 25, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Electoral Observer Mission (SEOM), deployed to observe Zimbabwe’s 2023 general elections, released its preliminary report with findings that surprised few but certainly raised eyebrows. In an unprecedented move, the historically uncommunicative SEOM declared that the elections in some aspects fell short “of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021)” and highlighted several process and procedural deficits that did not align with regional election standards. Observer missions from the European Union, the Carter Centre and, to a lesser extent the African Union, expressed similar concerns.

SADC has a long history of endorsing flawed elections in Zimbabwe, and is often viewed by civil society activists and human rights organizations as lacking in credibility as an observer. Its pronouncement during the 2023 elections therefore broke the pattern and raised hopes that the regional body had grown some teeth and would push for much needed reforms in the country. However, since releasing its initial statements, the regional body has failed to act on its findings with significant human rights and democracy implications for the region and the conduct of future elections.

The aftermath of the Zimbabwe elections and SADC’s response could have serious repercussions with elections due to be held in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2023 and national and presidential elections in the Comoros, Madagascar, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Mauritius and Mozambique in 2024. It is therefore imperative that SADC pressures the government to commit to key political reforms related to the elections and human rights. Any lack of action undermines its credibility and commitment to promoting and sustaining democracy, good governance and rights in the region. It also raises questions about the effectiveness and impact of election observer missions in general.

Undermining democratic principles

SADC’s inaction signals a tolerance for undemocratic practices and serves to undermine democratic norms and values in the region that are underpinned by the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. With the number of elections coming up in the region in the coming months, the lack of enforcement of electoral integrity only serves to encourage authoritarian tendencies and dissuade countries from adhering to democratic principles. Without a firm stance on elections from regional entities like SADC, autocratic leaders in the region will feel emboldened to entrench their power through undemocratic means. This will lead to a regional shift away from democracy and impact democratic advancement in the region. A strong stance against power grabs strengthens the region’s democratic credentials, ensures that the will of the people is respected and more importantly solidifies people’s trust in democracy as a whole.

Erosion of Trust

The discrepancy between the findings of the SEOM and the lack of subsequent action would further erode trust in SADC as an institution. This is particularly resonant in light of SADC’s suspension of the SADC tribunal after pressure from the Zimbabwe government. The suspension of the tribunal was widely seen as a failure of the regional body to enforce its own mechanisms and dented its reputation. SADC’s lack of action in this case would further diminish its influence and capacity as a neutral and effective mediator of the region’s conflicts.

Human Rights Concerns

Local and international human rights organizations have reported that in the aftermath of the elections, the Zimbabwean authorities have attacked government critics and opponents, arresting, abducting and torturing opposition activists and clamping down on civil society activities across the country. For example, on 4 September human rights lawyers Doug Coltart and Tapiwa Muchineripi of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) were arrested for representing two opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) members who had been abducted and were receiving treatment at a hospital in Harare. The lawyers were arrested and charged with obstructing the course of justice. By not addressing reported irregularities and potential rights abuses, SADC indirectly contributes to the perpetuation of human rights violations, creating a precedent of impunity where governments feel enabled to infringe upon citizen’s rights without fear of regional accountability or condemnation.

Regional stability

Unaddressed electoral grievances as we have seen in other parts of the continent with the increase in coups, sometimes as a result of electoral grievances such as in Gabon, have the potential to lead to political instability and conflict, which can have spillover effects in the region. Additionally, the potential for increased migration as evidenced by the presence of Zimbabweans in South Africa underscores the interconnectedness of the region and the importance of upholding democratic norms and human rights.

Legitimisation of flawed elections

While the SEOM statement was commendable, accepting the results of such a flawed electoral process can be seen as a tacit endorsement of illegitimate governments and unravels the important findings of the SEOM. Such acceptance compromises the democratic legitimacy of governments in the eyes of their citizens, potentially leading to increased internal and external tensions and raising the spectre of conflict.

Impact on Future Elections

The implications of SADC’s inaction for future elections are clear. The lack of a decisive response to electoral irregularities and rights abuses threatens to undermine any progress made in the region and highlights the needs for stronger mechanisms to ensure accountability and adherence to democratic principles. Zimbabweans, like other citizens across the continent are increasingly losing trust in the efficacy of elections. This has serious repercussions for the political and economic landscape in Zimbabwe and the rest of the region. As the current situation has highlighted, electoral observer missions play an indispensable role in safeguarding democratic processes, institutions and principles. However, such reporting must lead to concrete actions to address electoral deficits and ensure required reforms. Future elections in the region will lack credibility if SADC’s commitment to ensuring free and fair elections is called into question, hindering the consolidation of democratic institutions and processes in member states, and potentially leading to long-term instability and governance challenges.

Tiseke Kasambala is the Director of Africa Programs at Freedom House overseeing the program’s various rights and democracy projects across the continent. Tiseke Kasambala has over 20 years of experience working in East and Southern Africa on human rights, democracy, and governance.


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