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US should rethink ‘democracy promotion’ in Southern Africa

By Jeffrey T. Smith | Advocacy Officer, Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights |

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was recently reelected to serve a seventh consecutive term in office.

Jeffrey T. Smith
Jeffrey T. Smith

Should he manage to serve the full five years as permitted by the constitution, Mugabe will stand a spry 94 years old at the end of his term, with the Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) holding power for nearly four decades.

While Mugabe and ZANU-PF are notorious for using all available means at their disposal to remain in power — from repeated acts of violence and intimidation to electoral manipulation — his stay in executive office is not by any means a regional anomaly.

Many political parties that have roots in their respective liberation struggles have yet to experience defeat at the ballot box, including the African National Congress (ANC) in neighboring South Africa and liberation mainstays in Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique.

Even in Botswana, which is regarded as a relatively high functioning democracy, the same political party has occupied the presidency for almost 50 years. As a result of this prevailing environment, the challenges of impunity, endemic corruption, and a declining respect for basic political and human rights have been persistent and often difficult to overcome.

Indeed, according to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, all but three countries in the region have registered a six-year decline in the category of Participation and Human Rights.

Given that the prevailing environment in southern Africa is characterized by widespread democratic backsliding, it is high time that the United States both reevaluates and reshapes its strategy in the region.

In particular, the U.S. should consider re-calibrating its engagement with domestic civil societies to focus on policy development and oversight and work to better strengthen the adherence to the rule of law in more creative ways.

Now is certainly not the time to disinvest in the region — neither intellectually or financially — which is why it’s disconcerting that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) plans a 44 percent decrease in funding for democracy and human rights initiatives for the next fiscal year.

While the U.S. has invested substantially in democracy promotion projects in southern Africa, not nearly enough resources have been devoted to aiding domestic civil societies on issues of policy development and oversight.

By investing in these key areas, we help raise the cost of dictatorship in Zimbabwe, for instance, by promoting platforms like portfolio committees where civil society can engage more constructively with parliamentarians.

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In doing so, we make it more expensive for the Mugabe regime to pass repressive legislation that not only constrains the lives of ordinary citizens and civic activists alike, but also provides blueprints to other leaders in the region who are wary of their own unpopularity and thus look for devious ways to stifle civic participation.

One must look no further than the recent proliferation of so-called “public order” acts across Africa to grasp the importance of preventing repression in its early stages.

Efforts to promote good governance and accountability should be an additional — though altogether related — focal point for the U.S. in the region.

Indeed, the U.S. should actively work with civil society to link the often lofty rhetoric of human rights and democracy to everyday issues that affect ordinary citizens like access to employment, clean and running water, electricity, and other basic services.

An emphasis on local governance and holding one’s leaders accountable will combat rising voter apathy, as well as improve relationships between elected officials and the citizens they are ostensibly meant to represent.

U.S. policymakers need not prescribe outside solutions to the problems that currently beset the region. In fact, southern Africa is replete with regional conventions and treaties, including, among others, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. However, these rules have not been enforced.

Due to an overall lack of accountability, many of SADC’s longtime rulers feel it isn’t necessary, or in their best interests, to abide by their own standards. The July 31 election in Zimbabwe is a case in point, with estimates that nearly 1 million citizens were systematically disenfranchised — in addition to 4 million people living in the Diaspora — and numerous documented violations of political rights and civil liberties leading up to the vote.

Despite mounting and credible evidence of irregularities, SADC and the African Union (AU) were both quick to label the election as sufficiently “free and peaceful.”

In order to combat the lack of respect for basic political and human rights, and in the process strengthen the rule of law in the longer term, the U.S. should support strategic litigation efforts led by domestic and regional legal groups at the highest court on the continent, the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR).

Supporting efforts to submit petitions on the right to participate freely in public affairs, the right to vote, and the right to peaceful protest and assembly — all of which are recognized and presumably protected by the AU and SADC — are vital interventions for the U.S. to consider.

To strengthen democracy and enhance the respect for human rights, both of which are crucial elements for improving peoples’ lives in a sustainable way, U.S. policymakers should take a thoughtful look at past shortcomings in southern Africa.

The region is faced with potentially volatile elections in Madagascar this year and Mozambique and Malawi in 2014. The sham elections in Zimbabwe, and most recently in Swaziland, present a concerning trend of endorsing deeply flawed electoral processes that may ultimately spark social unrest.

Indeed, the negligence displayed by SADC — which has indicated a preference for maintenance of the status quo at the expense of cultivating democratic principles — may have profoundly negative effects on regional stability.

U.S. policymakers should therefore not abandon activities that are aimed at building stronger civil societies and domestic institutions; rather, we must collectively work to find innovative ways that will encourage civil society actors to hold their governments accountable and keep ruling political parties in check.

To be sure, resolute engagement with domestic and regional civil society actors should remain a focal point of U.S. government policy in southern Africa. However, a more strategic way forward is one that will focus on policy development and oversight, good governance and accountability, and the use of strategic litigation in Africa’s own courts to better protect the rights of its citizens.

This rights-based approach will produce shared dividends for both the United States and its more progressive allies in the region — forces that likely have the best chance of both outlasting and reversing the region’s antidemocratic trends.

Follow Jeffrey T. Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Smith_RFKennedy