AS ZIMBABWE prepares to hold an election in June, the country’s leading political rivals, President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, are both courting the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) in bids to use the regional bloc to secure their political futures.
Mr Mugabe, widely held in political circles as making a swan song on Zimbabwe’s political stage, needs Sadc’s endorsement not only for his legacy but to also regain legitimacy among regional peers — lost after a bloody election victory in June 2008.
Mr Tsvangirai, operating in an unfair political environment that favours Mr Mugabe, hopes to draw Sadc’s attention to the political land mines threatening stability.
Mr Tsvangirai this week met South African President Jacob Zuma, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Angolan Foreign Affairs Minister Georges Chikoti, in a concerted bid to solicit their support for an extraordinary summit.
Mr Tsvangirai fears that Mr Mugabe could call elections in June before the "minimum conditions" for a free and fair election are in place. Reactions to Mr Tsvangirai’s overtures have been mixed.
"The regional offensives by Mr Tsvangirai actually help to adequately inform Sadc partners on the situation in Zimbabwe," said human rights and media activist Kumbirai Mafunda. "If you refer to the Sadc communiques issued in recent months and years, Sadc seem to be well seized on the issues happening in Zimbabwe and have refused to be hoodwinked by Zanu (PF) and Mr Mugabe — which is what used to happen in the past."
A smaller faction of the Movement for Democratic Change led by Industry and Commerce Minister Welshman Ncube dismissed Mr Tsvangirai’s overtures to Sadc.
"Someone must call him back and tell him that, sadly for him, Sadc already knows that he has been cohabitating with Mr Mugabe and Zanu (PF)," said Nhlanhla Dube, the party spokesman.
In recent years, Mr Mugabe has had fallouts with the regional bloc members alarmed at the scale of violence that erupted during the June 2008 election perpetrated by Mr Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) party and wary of the flood of Zimbabweans crossing their borders.
Often considered by political observers as the "defining moment" in Mr Mugabe’s relationship with Sadc was the Livingstone, Zambia, summit held in March 2011 in which the 89-year-old received his sharpest rebuke to date from regional peers. Former Zambian president Rupiah Banda is alleged to have told Mr Mugabe "to shut up and stop talking nonsense".
Stunned by the new hardline stance, Zanu (PF) hawks led by Jonathan Moyo, a propaganda specialist in the party, rolled out acerbic attacks on Sadc accusing the regional bloc of infringing on the country’s "sovereignty".
Mr Zuma’s mediation in the political crisis also came under scrutiny, with Zanu (PF) pushing for his replacement. But with no sign of Mr Zuma being replaced as the mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis, Zanu (PF) has had to change its tone.
Political observers signpost Mr Mugabe’s repeated calls for peace ahead of the elections as an attempt to reinvent himself and curry favour with Sadc. His attempt to claw back support in the region has seen him revive alliances with countries including Zambia, Angola, Mozambique, Swaziland, Namibia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr Mugabe has pandered to liberation war camaraderie to win support in Sadc. He also appeared to have a newfound ally in Malawian President Joyce Banda, who officiated at last month’s Zimbabwe International Trade Fair. Before that, relations between the two had been quite frosty after Mrs Banda had soured relations with Mr Mugabe by demanding payment of a $24m debt owed by Harare last year.
She also set out to change her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika’s, hardline policies and arrested Mr wa Mutharika’s brother on allegations of sedition. Mr wa Mutharika was a close ally of Mr Mugabe and a beneficiary of the land distribution programme in Zimbabwe. He was married to a Zimbabwean.
In her opening address at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair, Ms Banda chided western countries and called on them to remove sanctions against Zimbabwe.
Trevor Maisiri, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Mr Tsvangirai’s close ties with the West had cast doubt on his true intentions with Sadc. Only Botswana has come out openly backing him.
"Mr Tsvangirai still faces the challenge of shrugging off the western-aligned tag, which is a very sensitive issue in southern Africa," Mr Maisiri said. "However, at the same time, the region seems to be looking beyond Mr Mugabe, given how Zimbabwe has negatively affected regional development for so long."