While addressing an international press conference in Nairobi over the weekend, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga called on the African Union (AU) to oust Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and end the oppression the Zimbabwean people are being subjected to. Odinga specifically called on the current AU chair Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete to take the lead in formulating an urgent solution to save Zimbabwe that is faced by a the triple crises of humanitarian catastrophes due to food shortages and an outbreak of cholera; a political stalemate due to the failure to implement a deal reached in September; and an economic meltdown with a record inflation rate.
Zimbabwe is going through what is termed as a “complex emergency.” According to the United Nations agency OCHA, a complex emergency is “a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict and which requires an international response.” What we are witnessing in Zimbabwe can in fact be described as a “complex political emergency”. The humanitarian and economic crises in Zimbabwe are linked to the disastrous politics and erratic governance of its leader. Mugabe’s politics have led to extensive violence and loss of life, massive displacements of people, widespread damages to social and economic systems, acute food shortages, and overall calamitous threats to the livelihoods of the Zimbabwean people. Since Zimbabwe is not an isolated island, the consequences of Mugabe’s reign of error and terror are reverberating in the Southern Africa region and the African continent.
When the AU was launched in 2002 to replace the ineffectual Organization of African Unity (OAU), it was wildly acclaimed for adopting a radical “principle of non-indifference,” as opposed to the “principle of non-interference” that had characterised its predecessor. The OAU had been generally despised for turning a blind eye to egregious human rights violation by despicable dictators such as Uganda’s Idi Amin, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Central Africa Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa, and Equatorial Guinea’s Marcias Nguema on pretext that it was barred by the “principle of non-interference” in the internal affairs of member states. Mordantly, it condemned President Julius Nyerere when he stood up against Amin’s aggressive and brutal regime.
The AU was the only organization, until September 2005, with the mandate to intervene in member-states where “grave circumstances” are taking place. The AU Constitutive Act defines “grave circumstances” as “war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” The AU can intervene on two grounds: when a state has collapsed and its citizens’ livelihoods are gravely threatened or when invited by a state that is too weak to protect the livelihoods of its people.
There are grey areas in invoking this audacious “principle of non-indifference.” Although one of the motivations that influenced the AU founding fathers was what happened in Rwanda in 1994 and never to let it happen again, the nascent organization seems to have been caught off guard when the crisis in Darfur happened. Its reaction could provide us with pointers to how it will handle Zimbabwe.
When the AU was called upon to invoke Article 4(h) in September 2004 to stem genocide in Darfur, it hesitated to act on the grounds that it had yet to carry out research to determine that genocide was taking, or had taken, place. This was a clever way avoiding taking action as the AU lacked the capability and capacity to undertake such a highly technical process. If the AU had undertaken research and concluded that indeed there were “grave circumstances” in Darfur, the matter would have been brought before its supreme decision-making body, the Assembly of the Heads of State and Government, to invoke Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act. Likewise, it could have invoked Article 4(j) had Sudan invited it to intervene. This would have been awkward, as the AU would have actually gone to Darfur to boost the capacity of the Sudanese government to undermine the livelihoods of its civilians!
Furthermore, the AU would also have faced a tough time to intervene in one of the powerful member states that adamantly insisted that as far it was concerned it was capable of protecting its own citizens and the AU could only come in to support it and on its terms. This is the argument that Khartoum has consistently and persistently used for the past 6 years since the Darfur atrocities came to the attention of the international community.
To complicate matters, the AU not only lacked the political will to make far-reaching decisions that would protect the civilian population in Darfur but also lacked the resources, both human and financial, to implement its feeble decisions. In view of the stark realities facing the AU—particularly its convoluted decision-making process, lack of resources, and lack of political will—it is not likely that it will intervene to protect the livelihoods of Zimbabweans. To further compound the problem of lack of resources, the capacity of the AU is currently exhausted due to its involvements in Darfur and Somalia. It will be unrealistic to expect it to add on its plate another complex political emergency.
What are the other options for external intervention? An intervention could come from the SADC region, similar to the 1998 intervene in Lesotho. However, going by that experience, countries of the region would not be keen, particularly if the Zimbabwean armed forces stand up to external aggression and fight back to defend their privileges. Another intervention could be made under the UN mandate by invoking Chapter VII and the principle of responsibility to protect. All the criteria for such an intervention exists vis-à-vis Zimbabwe—it has lost its sovereignty by failing to protect its civilians from loss of lives and livelihoods; the calamity is rising; and all peaceful efforts to end the suffering of the Zimbabwean people seem to have been exhausted. Force will have to be used as a last resort, as long as it is proportional, and would lead to a restoration of human security in the country. Nevertheless, SADC and the AU must legitimize such an intervention. However, both these organizations would be reluctant to set such a precedent and could insist on applying the cliché of “African solutions to African problems.” This would unnecessarily postpone the suffering of Zimbabwean people and would by default prolong Mugabe’s misrule.
Alternatively, either intervention could be pre-empted by Zimbabwean security forces that could take matters in their own hands and end a disastrous situation. But there is a complication in this solution—the AU ban on coups d’état on the continent. At the moment the AU is in a standoff with the Mauritanian military that in August took over from a democratically elected government. The question to ask is: if the AU allows a military take-over in Zimbabwe, would that set a precedent and contradict its policy against such means of changing governments?
All things considered, and as the international community fudges and gets mired in indecision paralysis, it is upon the people of Zimbabwe to take to the streets, and to use other means, to end the nightmare they are experiencing. It is only the Zimbabwean people who can liberate themselves from their “liberator.” The best that the international community can do is to support and supplement their noble “second liberation struggle.” Let us hope that when the AU Heads of State and Government meet in late January 2009, they will take a decision to support such efforts and lead the international community in providing the Zimbabwean people with all the support that they need to free themselves.