For the past 10 days, since events in Zimbabwe began to unfold, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) state broadcaster – the Radio-Télévision nationale congolaise (RTNC) – has refused to report on or show images of the situation. It seems the ruling Congolese elite fears that the “non-coup”, which culminated in Robert Mugabe’s resignation as president on 21 November, might be contagious.
There are indeed many similarities between the two countries. Both are led by presidents who have overstayed their welcome. Congolese President Joseph Kabila has extended his time in office one year beyond the expiration of his mandate, while Robert Mugabe was the only president Zimbabwe had ever known. He was voted out in 2008 only to be saved by his army. Both men are unpopular with their own populations.
In the DRC the population has gone to the streets numerous times since early 2015, when it became obvious that the ruling party was going to attempt to delay the 2016 elections. Protests have been met with vicious crackdowns, human rights violations and even killings by the Congolese security services. In Zimbabwe, the population has protested time and again – against the ruling party, rampant human rights abuses, stolen elections and the abysmal economic situation – also to meet the might of the security services.
In Zimbabwe, like in the DRC, the army is part of the ruling elite and its survival is closely linked to the survival of that elite. In both countries, army leadership is deeply corrupt, feeding off natural resources (during the years of Zimbabwe’s military intervention in the DRC, the two armies plundered DRC diamonds together) and the state budget.
If the opposition were ever allowed to win an election, the interests of the Zimbabwean and Congolese armies would be significantly threatened.
That these countries are dysfunctional is not news to their citizens; millions of Zimbabweans and hundreds of thousands of Congolese citizens have chosen to leave their countries, where unemployment is rampant, public services are poor or absent, and prospects for the future are dim.
Poor governance in Zimbabwe has always had a regional impact. But until the sudden shift in the balance of power last week, the region, South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have paid scant attention to it. In fact, SADC and South Africa have been widely criticised for repeatedly siding with the Mugabe government in moments of crisis. In doing so they have facilitated the destruction of the economy and the pauperisation of the Zimbabwean population.
Analysts have long surmised that SADC’s reluctance to take a stronger position was due to Mugabe’s standing as a liberation hero and the solidarity among liberation parties in government. This and the unwillingness among like-minded presidents in the region to set the precedent of acting against an incumbent – no matter how controversial.
But what we have seen over the past week is political expediency at its best. Statements from SADC and South Africa in the first 24 hours after the coup make no mention of Mugabe himself, instead making vague references to the need to respect the Zimbabwean constitution. This is as close to a disavowal of Mugabe as it is possible to get.
So, given the right set of circumstances, and the possibility of hiding behind domestic actors such as the Zimbabwean generals, it seems that SADC and South Africa are happy to look the other way and ignore their own norms regarding unconstitutional changes of power if the result is the resolution of an intractable problem, but remains in the interests of liberation parties.
Was the deciding factor in this disavowal the assessment that the generals would be successful in pulling off the ruse of a non-coup? What would have been SADC’s reaction if an equal amount of pressure on Mugabe to go had come from a well-organised campaign led by the population? Is the difference that in the current scenario the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) will remain in power? SADC has repeatedly bent over backwards to protect liberation parties and seems to have done so again.
And so back to the DRC where, in delaying elections for at least two years, Kabila has arguably violated the DRC’s constitution in ways more egregious than Mugabe has violated Zimbabwe’s. The population is against him, and the opposition is more united than it has been since the early 1990s.
But aside from vague murmurings about the need to hold elections, and the recent appointment of a special envoy to the DRC, SADC has allowed Kabila to get away with stealing an additional two years – and maybe more – in office. Likewise for South Africa, which undoubtedly has a prominent role to play in the DRC – as it does in Zimbabwe, but which lacks leadership on all fronts. This vacuum is acutely felt in the region.
Kabila is not himself a liberation hero. But like in Zimbabwe, SADC’s willingness to endorse Kabila’s actions is driven more by a reluctance by regional leaders to set an institutional precedent about sanctioning a fellow head of state for disrespecting his country’s constitution, than by outright support for Kabila himself.
What Zimbabwe is teaching us is that if the stars align in just the right way, and a niggling problem can finally be resolved, the region can and will turn against its own. And while many people may be happy to see Mugabe go this way, and Kabila pushed out in a similar fashion, there is a great risk to this political expediency.
The political situations in the DRC and Zimbabwe have long cried out for principled regional engagement, but SADC has turned a blind eye for many years. The region needs a body that upholds human rights, democracy and respect for constitutionalism – not one that seizes easy solutions to difficult problems only when the cost of doing so is low.
Stephanie Wolters is Head of Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis, ISS Pretoria.