Botswana's Oversight Essential in Regional Elections

2013 was a rough year, annus horribilis, for the regional economic bloc of 15 southern African states that collectively make up the Southern African Development Community. The year started with unanswered pleas from legal academics, human rights' activists and editorial boards for the group to reinstate its regional human rights tribunal. The community disbanded it in 2011 after the tribunal was deemed to have been too aggressive in its pursuit of tackling human rights abuses ... against member states.

By midyear, the community's leaders were ducking criticism left, right and center for rubber-stamping its "comrade's" disputed election results in member state Zimbabwe - extending Robert Mugabe's 33-year authoritarian rule by another five years all the while brushing aside a damning report from Botswana's electoral watchdog commissioners who noted "evidence of possible shortfalls include ... questions about the inclusion and exclusion of people on the rolls, questions over the forms of identification required to vote ... as well as credible allegations of people otherwise being denied the right to vote."

Shortly after Mugabe's confirmation, regional leaders, wary of alienating the reinvigorated octogenarian despot, elected Mugabe as the group's next leader amid a chorus of complaints.

The stakes are even higher for the Southern African Development Community in 2014.

Five member states - South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia - hold elections this year. Contests in two of those states, Mozambique and Namibia, promise new leadership due to expiring term limits for outgoing leaders.

But if January is any indication, 2014 is shaping up to be another rocky year for the group.

The New Year began with Madagascar's defeated presidential candidate, Robinson Jean Louis, pleading for the community to open an investigation into what he termed voting "irregularities" in the country's December 20th elections. The election itself - the island's first such contest in five years since a coup against a democratically elected leader plunged the country into economic malaise and political isolation - was initially hailed as a "a victory for multilateral diplomacy" as southern African states welcomed Madagascar back into the democratic diplomatic fold. But a week after Louis requested the group to intervene, regional leaders were calling to congratulate Madagascar's new leader, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, effectively quashing the opposition's efforts to open a multi-state investigation into the disputed election results.

On January 21, the Human Rights Watch issued a report 'slamming' the group for blindly endorsing Zimbabwe's 2013 presidential election results. "The ability of key international actors to apply pressure on Zimbabwe for a resolution of the election dispute, and for improvements in human rights and governance, was largely nullified by [the] ...endorsement of the July elections," the activist group said.

The same week the human rights report was released, Botswana President Seretse Khama Ian Khama announced that he too was fed-up with the community's lax enforcement and stated that his country would no longer partake in efforts to monitor future electoral contests.

"If we say this year, there are going to be elections in South Africa and Botswana ... there are one or two other SADC countries that are going to be holding elections this year ... if we breach the SADC guidelines and they then try and point a finger ... we will say to them, 'So what? You let Zimbabwe off the hook, you have to let us off the hook.' Then where does it end?" asked an exasperated Khama.

He added: "So, we have written to SADC ... and we sent them a dossier of all the irregularities our people picked up. But we have gone on to say until we get a response, we, as Botswana, are not going to participate in any more SADC observer missions because there is no point going there ... these observer missions cost money and we are not going to throw money down the drain."

"So, we are making a statement," he concluded.

One hopes Khama reconsiders.

Botswana's active oversight is integral to ensure the continued realization of free and fair democratic elections in the region. Yes, Botswana's presence in Zimbabwe last year did not ensure complete free and fair elections but its oversight was paramount to securing greater freedom and fairness for voters. Few doubt that the team's presence mitigated the potential for wholesale voter fraud and political violence (as seen in previous presidential elections in Zimbabwe).

After stepping out and forcing an international conversation about Zimbabwe's politics when no other regional leader dared, Khama and his team of electoral observers, have built up international capital and credibility to tackle competing claims of voting irregularities. In such an important year for the region, the community would be foolish to allow Khama's threat of nonparticipation to fall on deaf ears.

Drew F. Cohen is a former law clerk to the chief justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Follow him on Twitter at @DF_Cohen or email him at

An earlier version of this post appeared in U.S. News & World Report.