Zambians are concerned about reports of “death threats” against Zambia’s President Hakainde Hichilema allegedly coming from within Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF. Can the ongoing tensions undermine the SADC regional bloc?
A diplomatic standoff has escalated between Zambia and its southern African neighbor, Zimbabwe.
Supporters of Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema have been protesting reported death threats against him that allegedly originated from within Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF.
The reported threats allegedly stemmed from a scathing report on Zimbabwe’s August poll released two weeks ago by the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) election observer mission to Zimbabwe.
The SADC’s report — which was presented by its mission chairperson Nevers Mumba, who had served as Zambia’s eighth vice president — concluded that the Zimbabwean election did not meet the required transparency standards, a view strongly contested by the ZANU-PF party of reelected Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
International observers also criticized the election, citing an atmosphere of intimidation against the opposition before and during the vote, harsh security laws, banning opposition meetings and rallies and public media bias.
In response, ZANU-PF and Mnangagwa described the SADC’s Mumba and Zambia’s Hichilema as “Western puppets.” Both Zambia and Zimbabwe are SADC member countries.
“I will first take the petition to the foreign affairs minister so that they can use diplomatic channels to address this issue with SADC, AU, and ultimately the UN,” he said.
“Zimbabwe and Zambia are like twins. They are like sisters. We have enjoyed peace for many years.”
Farai Muroiwa Marapira, ZANU-PF’s information director, maintained that, while they disagreed with the election report, it should not be interpreted as hostility between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“We have no wish to influence or change the leadership of any country, anywhere,” he told DW.
“So when we come across such ludicrous accusations, we find them laughable,” Marapira added.
“We are not bothered. We are simply going to ignore them with the disdain they deserve. Claims that we might be trying to influence another country’s affairs are absurd. We hold no grudges against any country. We only seek respect for our sovereignty.”
In Harare, the ZANU-PF party denied any diplomatic fallout with Zambia.
Hichilema has yet to comment on the unfolding diplomatic tension. His counterpart, Mnangagwa, has remained tight-lipped on the issue.
Political arm wrestling
Gibson Nyikadzino, a Harare-based independent political analyst, views the ongoing tension as a contest between the two countries’ ruling parties.
“It’s uncertain whether this has escalated into a diplomatic dispute,” he told DW. “They have mechanisms to address their differences at the government level, and hopefully, this will lead to mutual understanding at a party level.”
Boniface Cheembe, the executive director of the NGO Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, emphasized the need for swift political attention to defuse an imminent diplomatic standoff.
“We appeal to both President Hakainde Hichilema of the Republic of Zambia and President Emerson Mnangagwa of the Republic of Zimbabwe to prevail upon their people, call for calm, urge restraint and ensure that the cordial relations between Zambia and Zimbabwe continue to endure,” Cheembe told DW.
Can the dispute undermine the SADC?
Despite historically close ties between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the stalemate could undermine the unity and collaboration of the SADC.
According to international policy expert Lwazi Somya, the situation in Zimbabwe has long caused tensions within the SADC.
“During the tenure of Robert Mugabe, President Ian Khama was very critical of ZANU-PF and the Zimbabwean government,” he told DW.
“Now, in this instance, President Hichilema has taken upon a more fundamentalist role in terms of upholding regional institutions and the law that governs the region. What is at stake here is whether or not the legacy and collaboration of former liberation movements will fundamentally undermine the institutional integrity of SADC.”
SADC needs to take a strong stand
Regional bodies need to take appropriate steps when a member breaks institutional rules and regulations, Somya emphasized.
“They have fundamentally kicked out of those countries and essentially limited trade with those countries,” Somya explained.
“In southern Africa, we have not seen the consequences, especially concerning the breaking of regional treaties and protocols. So it’s in order for SADC to redeem itself, the implementation of these various regional treaties and protocols is very critical, along with holding each other accountable.”
SADC now needs to take a strong stand, Somya suggested, as regional bodies were “built up by people we have democratically elected. We need to salvage the vision of our forebears who fought against apartheid and colonialism and realize those aspirations of democratic, free and fair societies.”
George Okachi contributed to this article.
This article has been adapted by Silja Fröhlich from a radio report that was originally broadcast on DW’s AfricaLink, a daily podcast packed with news, politics, culture and more. You can listen and follow AfricaLink wherever you get your podcasts.