Dealing with crises in Africa: south vs west

Politics and Society

Dealing with crises in Africa: south vs west

Why doesn’t SADC intervene in dire political situations in the same way leaders in West Africa do?



Civil society groups, opposition leaders and commentators are asking why the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is so quiet on crises such as those in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

In the run-up to their 40th annual summit on 17 August, SADC leaders faced a barrage of criticism over their inaction regarding the region’s problems. In contrast, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) heads of state are currently trying to resolve the political crisis in Mali and have previously intervened in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia.

South Africa’s influential former public protector Thuli Madonsela, for example, asked why SADC wasn’t taking steps to defuse Zimbabwe’s conflict in the same way ECOWAS was in West Africa. ‘If this was ECOWAS, there would long ago have been a meeting with President [Emmerson] Mnangagwa to ask him to explain what is going on,’ Madonsela said in an SABC News interview.

Meanwhile, almost three years after a devastating insurgency started in northern Mozambique, there are increasing callsfor SADC to act decisively and transparently. And in the DRC, opposition politicians say SADC should be held responsible for the country’s political tension after it legitimised a flawed election.


Solidarity between former liberation movements is SADC’s main obstacle to meaningful engagement

SADC, however, is very different from ECOWAS – historically, institutionally and politically. Commentators in the region usually mention the solidarity between former liberation movements in SADC as the main obstacle in any meaningful engagement to intervene on behalf of citizens.

Ruling parties such as the African National Congress in South Africa, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, the Mozambique Liberation Front, the South West Africa People’s Organisation in Namibia and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola tend to shield one another from interference or criticism.

In the ECOWAS region, memories of the struggle against colonialism are not as fresh in everyone’s minds as in Southern Africa where links between former liberation movements remain strong.

However, SADC is also hamstrung by numerous institutional obstacles. Going forward, institutional reforms could give it a greater political role. First, it has a fairly weak secretariat, with few decision-making powers compared to the ECOWAS Commission. The latter has a bigger budget and arguably more capacity than SADC to work independently of member states. Countries in Southern Africa haven’t considered it in their interests to strengthen the SADC Secretariat.

SADC has a fairly weak secretariat, with few decision-making powers compared to the ECOWAS Commission

The SADC Secretariat and its executive secretary also rarely speak out on controversial matters. This is left to member states. Yet countries meet only once a year and if the chair of the organisation is not engaged in issues – or is implicated – nothing happens. ECOWAS is not faultless in this regard. Whether it communicates effectively depends on the personality and strength of the ECOWAS Commission chairperson.


Second, when it comes to intervening in crises, SADC is hamstrung by a complicated system that dates back to a time before South Africa joined the then Southern African Development Coordination Conference in 1992. Any political issues are handled by the troika of the Organ for Politics, Defence and Security, which in the past year has been led by Mnangagwa. This is distinct from the troika of current, previous and upcoming chairs of SADC.

This rotating so-called double troika approach might be more inclusive, with six heads of state serving in leadership positions at any given time, but it is often misunderstood by the general public and creates confusion. Some in SADC have called for reforms to the double troika system.

The rotating positions are also rarely occupied by the leaders of smaller and newcomer states such as Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles or the Comoros. Following the 17 August summit, SADC will be headed by Mozambique’s Filipe Nyusi and Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi will lead the organ.

SADC citizens can’t turn to a tribunal when wronged by their governments, as those in West Africa can

Third, SADC doesn’t have institutions that properly represent citizens – a huge obstacle to decisive action and buy-in from ordinary people in the region. Citizens in SADC cannot turn to a tribunal when they feel wronged by their own governments, as those in West Africa can with the ECOWAS Court of Justice. The SADC tribunal was dissolved in 2012 following pressure from former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. The tribunal should be reinstated with full powers.

SADC also doesn’t have a regional parliament. Its Parliamentary Forum has no legislative powers and although many requests have been made to upgrade it to a fully-fledged parliament, this hasn’t happened. Such a move could improve SADC’s connection with ordinary people.


Fourth, the make-up of election observer missions, often consisting of government officials with few civil society participants, has undermined SADC’s credibility. This is often the only time citizens see SADC at work in their own countries – when vehicles carrying officials bearing the SADC logo do the rounds at election time. ECOWAS and other regional economic communities aren’t without fault on this score, having rubber-stamped many elections considered deeply compromised.

Finally, the fact that many resolutions are adopted and not implemented undermines people’s faith in SADC. In ECOWAS, a member state citizen can travel fairly freely with an ECOWAS passport across the organisation’s 15 member states – barring harassment by corrupt officials at borders.

For most SADC residents, especially those from outlier countries such as Madagascar, there’s no such luxury. While free movement across borders might be possible for some, working and living in another member state owing to your regional status is still a pipe dream.

SADC has, over the years, claimed important milestones in improving regional integration and ensuring greater synergy between policies in member states – from gender representation in politics to infrastructure and border management. It has also tried to coordinate responses to COVID-19 by ensuring freight transport can move across the region.

Those living in conflict-ridden countries and experiencing bad governance, however, will continue to hope for reforms that see SADC making more decisive interventions and taking a principled stance.


Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Senior Researcher and Project Leader: Southern Africa, ISS Pretoria

This article was first published by the ISS PSC Report.

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