IT’S election period in Zambia, one week before voting day and journalists are hustling for a somewhat impromptu press briefing at Hotel InterContinental in the capital, Lusaka.
The briefing is called by a group of distinguished women and men, yet to be identified by journalists.
It’s a packed hotel hall, and on each end is a serving bay for refreshments.
And while journalists are helping themselves with refreshments, a young lady’s voice blazes through, asking everyone to pay attention.
“But we are not done with our refreshments yet,” one male journalist mumbled.
“Shall we all stand as I introduce the team that has brought us here!” the young lady squealed with delight in a typical Ngoni accent. She first introduces herself as Nandeka Mwale – the day’s programme director, before introducing the team as a delegation from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), that has come to monitor the country’s elections.
Later, a hefty gentleman, clad in sky blue Pierre Cardin suit, is introduced as delegation leader. And the man quickly gives his name and proceeds to addresses journalists, explaining the delegation’s mission to Zambia.
Prior to voting day, the team meets the so-called stakeholders in the electoral process for consultations These include government and opposition leaders, non-governmental organisations, the church, and probably the media.
Come voting day, the team visits some polling stations in Lusaka and possibly the Copperbelt, both of which are urban areas and easily accessible. As results start rolling in, the delegation is quietly enjoying tea and whiskey at the hotel, while voters are busy complaining about the seemingly unfair electoral process and delayed results from the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ). And once the final official results are announced in favour of the ruling party, the delegation calls for another press briefing where they declare the elections free and fair, and later leave the country. Work is done, report released and allowances justified. Meanwhile, the sad hearts of majority dissatisfied voters remain groaning as the ECZ and the courts also turn against the people.
This is the face associated with SADC in most member countries for decades now. It is a face that is perceived to have cared less about good governance and supported dictatorship and flawed electoral processes in the region. On this score, SADC has therefore been viewed as a club for despots. This perception may not go well with the SADC secretariat, but it’s a painful reality on the ground.
Since Zambia’s return to multiparty politics 28 years ago, SADC has been identified mainly with pure politics – its declaration of elections in member states as ‘free and fair’. Yet, aggrieved citizens of such nations have the following day taken to the streets, protesting against a fraudulent or bloody election.
In most public discourses, Zambians have praised the West African regional grouping, ECOWAS for standing against dictators and electoral fraudsters. To many, SADC is viewed to have perpetuated and condoned dictatorship from sitting presidents in member states including Zambia, hence brushing the regional body aside and labeling it a toothless bulldog. The SADC secretariat, therefore, has a lot to do to change this scenario, at least in the mind of a Zambian voter.
On the other hand, it’s sister group, the Economic Commission for West African States (ECOWAS) has distinguished itself as a disciplinarian of bad governance in the bloc. In December 2016, ECOWAS forcefully removed then Gambian president Yahya Jammeh from power after he refused to accept his electoral defeat to Adama Barrow. If it were in the SADC region, those elections would have been declared free and fair, with officials getting out of the country on the first flights, leaving unsatisfied voters to fight on their own.
However, there is a positive face that has not been seen, let alone appreciated by majority citizens in member states. For a long time now, SADC has spearheaded multimillion-dollar projects in the region that have either gone unnoticed, overlooked or simply taken as government business as usual. And these projects have impacted positively on citizens.
In fact, other than fostering peace and unity in the region, it is also SADC’s role to promote economic development and regional integration. Additionally, SADC endeavours to facilitate trade and financial liberalisation, as envisaged in the SADC Trade Protocol that was passed in 1996. Furthermore, the regional body promotes establishment of competitive and diversified industrial development, as well as increased investment and poverty eradication.
In Zambia, SADC has spearheaded numerous projects in various sectors such as trade, finance, infrastructure development and agriculture, among others. Although the existence of some of these projects could be known, they certainly may not be connected to SADC. This article highlights one of the economic projects that will also help unfold the missing face of SADC.
The Chirundu One Stop Border Post is a SADC-spearheaded project under the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) bloc. It is shared between Zambia and Zimbabwe, both of which are SADC member countries. Launched in 2003, the project was aimed at improving the clearance of goods, and eventually meet international border management standards. And in 2009, the two governments signed an agreement to run the Border Post efficiently. Besides, the border has a state-of-the-art electronic scanner that helps facilitate trade through efficiency.
According to the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) the project has increased trade volumes and revenue for the country. Additionally, it has facilitated more trade, not just between Zambia and Zimbabwe but also among other member states.
“There has been a lot of positive changes associated with the One Stop Border Post. First of all, we have reduced border time by half; where transporters were spending nine days then, now they are spending three days at the most. In this way we have continued with the SADC vision of facilitating trade,” said ZRA communications manager Topsy Sikalinda.
“There has also been an increase in revenue as a result of more traffic passing through this border. Besides, because of efficiency, many transporters are now opting for the Chirundu border. And this efficiency has been necessitated by the fact that all border processes are done at one point as opposed to the normal border. We have customs officers from Zambia and Zimbabwe sitting in one place so that they are also able to consult each other as they clear the goods.”
Among beneficiaries in this project are the transporters of goods, whose drivers are common faces at the border.
In an interview, a Zimbabwean fuel tanker driver, Godson Chigavazira remarked: “This was a very good idea then, but there are more challenges now. On the Zimbabwean side, there are times when trucks line up from the border, all the way to Marongora Game Park. They need to find out why it sometimes takes so long to clear tankers. Perhaps it was good then because there were few transporters; now we have a lot of them.”
His counterpart, Wilfred Nyamuziwha proposed 24-hours operations at the border.
“Instead of them closing the border at 22:00 hours, let them work 24 hours. This will help deal with some of the delays that we experience. Otherwise, this border is better than, for example, Kasumbalesa. I’ve been in this business for 20 years and I’ve been to almost all the borders of Zambia. Here, we used to spend weeks to clear goods, but now we spend at least three to five days,” explained Nyamuziwha.
The English dictionary defines ‘image’ as the general impressions that a person or organisation, or product presents to the public. It is this image that helps the public connect with or disconnect from an organisation or individual person. In this case, SADC must strive to unveil its correct image by removing barriers such as unnecessarily restrictive bureaucracies.
They should also easily and quickly avail information of public interest to the media and to the public. It took this author not less than three months to obtain information from the ZRA. Otherwise, it is such challenges that overshadow the true and positive image of the regional body, when that should not be the case.