Lusaka, 29 March 2023
The United States government is co-hosting the second Summit for Democracy with the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Zambia from 29 – 30 March 2023. The purpose of this Summit is to inter alia, showcase progress made in protecting fundamental freedoms and promoting democratic values since the first summit that was launched in 2021.
In Zambia, the region has reason to hope
Meeting under the theme ‘free, fair and transparent elections in Africa’, it is extremely pleasing and befitting that Zambia is co-host. Despite much of Africa sliding into more and more dictatorial, fascist and authoritarian rule, the southern African state of Zambia stands out as a shining light in darkness. Whilst challenges remain, Zambia seems to have turned a corner with the coming to power of President Hakainde Hichilema. A number of progressive reforms have been introduced and there are already signs of Zambians bearing the fruit of good governance in several practical ways. Zambia and Zambians should be proud of co-hosting this special Summit.
Despite commitments and modest progress, democratisation still a dream as dictators fight back
We recognize commitments to build more resilient democracies that were made by world leaders at the first Summit for Democracy. In particular, we note the commitments by our Southern Africa Development Community leaders who pledged to, among others, intensify efforts to make human rights a reality; build strong governance institutions that carry out their constitutional mandate when the situation demands it and having political leaders use their platforms to engage citizens in actively holding these institutions accountable; combat corruption and improve service delivery; promote gender equality and restore the rule of law. There is an emerging pattern of leaders just ensuring that they say the ‘right things’ both for domestic and international audiences apparently without any intention to follow through on promises.
It is not that hard to predict that more and more promises, pledges and commitments to good governance practices and democratic rule will be read from the carefully planned speech scripts at the next summit. This is of course borne out and sustained by a culture of non-accountability and basically taking citizens for granted. We therefore express our concern that despite countless commitments and pledges, the SADC region continues to witness a rise in authoritarianism, shrinking civic and democratic space and the erosion of human rights. We have witnessed mounting legal and human rights threats to the existence of a vibrant civil society as evidenced by unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests, harassment and intimidation of dissenting voices.
Lawfare, or the weaponisation of the law facilitated by whipped parliaments, compromised judiciaries and captured law enforcement services is at an all-time high in Africa. Recently, the Senate (upper house) in the Parliament of Zimbabwe passed the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, which now awaits President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s assent to become law. Once passed, the act will effectively criminalise the work of civil society organisations in Zimbabwe. With civil society out of the way, or at least severely restricted, this would no doubt signal the final nail on Zimbabwe’s already extremely narrow prospects for any semblance of good governance. These restrictions have far reaching consequences not only on the work of civil society, but also on the socio-economic prospects of the long-suffering citizens and their enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms as enshrined in the country’s constitution.
In 2022, the President of Malawi, Lazarus Chakwera, assented to the Non-Governmental Organisation – NGO (Amendment) Bill which critics say was aimed at weakening civil society organisations and killing active citizenship. In its attempt to cripple CSOs, the Bill for example, provides for mandatory registration for NGOs at very prohibitive costs whose undeclared aim is to make it unaffordable for most youths.
Likewise, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, Eswatini presents probably by far the most serious and urgent case for regional intervention in the face of the totalitarian push by King Mwsati III. An array of defamation laws restrict the role of effective media. The operation of NGOs is severely disabled by broadly written sedition and terrorism laws as well as police monitoring and interference. Organisations that advocate for democracy remain banned while political activists face unlawful arrests or even murder. In January 2023, renowned human rights defender, Advocate Thulani Rudolph Maseko, was gunned down at his home, in front of his wife and kids, becoming one of the more than 80 civilians that have been killed since 2021 for demanding political and democratic reforms in Eswatini.
The increasingly intractable insurgency in Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique must also be viewed as a serious crisis spot, with the potential to cause serious regional instability. The fact that the region does not seem to have any solution, years into the devastating conflict does not inspire confidence that a capable leadership exists.he United Nations envoy in the DRC has already reportedly warned that fighting in the east of the country could spiral out of control, amid reports of grave human rights abuses including women being forced to cook and eat human flesh.
In South Africa, which should otherwise serve as the centre of regional hope, we see the incessant anti-foreigner sentiments as another serious cause for concern, given the strategic role that the country plays to the entire region’s economy.
We contend that if left unattended, these hotspots can easily become the epicentre from whence the ‘veld fire’ targeting civil society and human rights defenders will rapidly spread across the region.
Celebrating progress but less talk: A call to action
Given the foregoing, we would like to call on participating governments to desist from turning the forthcoming Summit into yet another talk show and rather pay particular attention to actual progress that translates to real transformation of the lives of the ordinary citizens they serve. It goes without saying that dictatorships and illiberal regimes are adapting to the environment and getting away with everything.
To cozying up with world leaders and using transactional policies to buy legitimacy and sustain the power retention agenda, the bad leaders in the region will not be bothered by the Summit until summit leaders indicate a strong resolve on behalf of the long-suffering citizens. The cost of oppressing citizens should be raised if the push for democracy, democratisation and good governance is to be sustained.
1. We reiterate our call for SADC leaders to take robust measures to bring King Mswati III to the table for a SADC-led ‘national and inclusive multi-stakeholder dialogue,’ to pave the way for a multi-party democratic dispensation in the kingdom of Eswatini. We further demand accountability for the brutal murder of human rights defender Thulani Rudolph Maseko and the release of the SADC Fact Finding Mission Reports of 2021.
2. We reiterate that the conflict in Eastern DRC remains a ‘resource curse conflict’ whose permanent solution lies in the demilitarisation of Eastern DRC and the reversal of neoliberal domination and armed competition for the DRC’s resources. We further reiterate our call for deepened SADC collaboration with the United Nations, African Union, regional and national bodies to meet pressing humanitarian needs and end the ingrained violence in Eastern DRC.
3. We acknowledge the peace building efforts of the SADC Standby Force Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM). We however plead for sustained collective action to address the root causes of the security and humanitarian situation in Northern Mozambique, which are embedded in the region’s continued failure to restrain the excesses of neocolonial economic greed and domination.
4. We remind SADC leaders of the deteriorating pre-electoral human rights and democratic conditions in Zimbabwe and urge the timely deployment of long-term SADC Election Observers in order to protect the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. We urge SADC to not wait for many more prominent people to be shot dead like the unfortunate incident in Eswatini, as early warning signs already point to another disputed electoral process.
5. We salute His Excellency Dr Hage G. Geingob, President of the Republic of Namibia, for his principled stewardship as Chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defense and Security Cooperation. We call upon the incoming Chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, His Excellency Mr. Hakainde Hichilema, President of the Republic of Zambia to continue in the same vein.
For comment and perspective please contact:
Janet Zhou, SAPSN Secretary General,
Peter Mutasa, Chairperson, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition,
+263 77 455 2816
Blessing Ivan Vava, Executive Director, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition,