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SADC must be more proactive on security issues

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Picture: Yandisa Monakali/DIRCO – President Cyril Ramaphosa participates in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Extraordinary Organ Troika Summit taking place in Windhoek, Namibia January 31, 2023.

By Sizo Nkala

The Extra-Ordinary Organ Troika Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) took place in Namibia on January 31. The Organ Troika Summit is conducted under the auspices of the SADC Organ on Politics Defence and Security which is mandated to deal with peace and security matters affecting the region and leads SADC’s response to such issues.

The current Troika is made up of South Africa, Namibia and Zambia who oversee the operations of the organ. In attendance at the summit were the leaders of Namibia, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zambia, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Eswatini. The agenda of summit included the SADC Mission in Mozambique, the national reform process in Lesotho, the National Dialogue in Eswatini, and the violent conflict unfolding in eastern DRC.

Last but certainly not least, the summit adopted SADC’s declaration on the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act which has been proposed in the US Congress. If passed, the Act would request the US Secretary of State to design a strategy to counter and undermine Russian political influence in Africa. It is also meant to discourage African countries from helping Russia bypass the sanctions imposed on it by the West following its invasion of Ukraine last year.

The 42nd SADC Ordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government which was held in August 2022 unequivocally denounced the legislation as a violation of Africa’s sovereignty, independence and an unfair and unilateral targeting of the African continent. The Organ Troika Summit reiterated and reaffirmed the regional organisation’s position of non-alignment on conflicts outside the continent.

However, it is interesting that the SADC member states managed to find a common position on the said US law on Russia in Africa but voted differently on the United Resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March last year. Seven member states voted in favour of the motion while another seven voted against the motion.

Such divergent voting patterns on matters carrying grave global security implications are worrisome as they indicate the lack of a coherent and collective plan for the region’s response to global security issues. The Organ Troika Summit came at a time when the region is facing a host of threats to peace and security in countries like the DRC, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique which are stretching the organisation’s capabilities.

The SADC has had to intervene in the conflicts across the region. In July 2021, the SADC mission in Mozambique was deployed to Mozambique’s northern region of Cabo Delgado to combat the rebels that were fighting against the government’s forces. The mission was made up of 2,000 soldiers from eight member countries.

However, the regional body was criticised for being slow to react to the insurgency which began in 2017. By the time intervention was expedited four years later, a lot of damage had already been done, with hundreds of people dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced from their homes. It is important that SADC becomes more proactive in regional peace and security issues by helping prevent conflicts from escalating rather than reacting after the conflict has escalated.

This could be ensured by creating an independent SADC Standby Force which can be rapidly deployed to any hotspot without undue delays. In the case of Mozambique, this has left SADC with more to do, including quelling the insurgency and embarking on peace-building measures after the insurgency has been extinguished.

The SADC Preventive Mission in the Kingdom of Lesotho was deployed to Lesotho in 2017 to help the mountain kingdom restore peace and security after political tensions had come to a head. However, Lesotho is still struggling to pass political reforms which are seen as a panacea to the perennial political squabbling which has often turned violent since the country gained independence from Britain in 1966.

Successive governments have failed to institute the required reforms thus continuing to put Lesotho and the region as a whole on the brink of another security crisis. While the Organ Troika Summit got assurances from Lesotho’s prime minister that the reforms are going to be done, SADC must play a more active role in pushing for reforms rather than being a bystander hoping for the best.

Moreover, in 2022 the regional organisation embarked on a fact-finding mission to Eswatini where a political crisis had turned into a violent conflict between the opposing sides. The Eswatini government forces cracked down on protesters, leaving many injured while some lost their lives. The organisation has also indicated that it is making efforts to bring peace in the eastern region of the DRC where armed conflict has left hundreds of people dead.

This was a rather disappointingly ambiguous statement from the summit. The conflict in eastern DRC has created a humanitarian crisis that will only get worse and have negative regional implications if not swiftly attended to. The summit did not outline any concrete plans to bring the conflict to an end. This reflects the regional body’s inability to act quickly in emergencies which can be attributed to its constitution as an association of sovereign states rather than a bona fide supranational organisation.

Dr Sizo Nkala Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies