“We need an Ecowas in southern Africa!”

That was the tweeted wail from prominent Zimbabwe lawyer Fadzayi Mahere this week as she and many Zimbabweans watched events up in the Gambia with envy.

Much as President Robert Mugabe is widely thought to have done in March 2008, Gambia’s ex-president Yahya Jammeh lost polls in his west African nation last month and then insisted on staying put.

What happened next was very different.

While Jammeh has been ostracised by regional body Ecowas (its forces and troops from Senegal and other Western nations are poised for action), SADC did no such thing nine years ago.

When it became clear that the Zimbabwean president was about to lose, he was allowed to stop announcing results and the country waited for five weeks for the outcome.

By then the clearly-doctored results gave opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai a margin that wasn’t enough for him to claim outright victory.

A second round of polling was called.
Ahead of that round, Mugabe’s militia unleashed violence in the rural areas, killing up to 200 opposition supporters.

Tsvangirai pulled out. Mugabe claimed victory. SADC remonstrated – feebly – by elbowing Mugabe into a coalition with Tsvangirai in which the ageing president retained maximum control.

Here are some of the reasons Mugabe got away with what Jammeh hasn’t:

The Gambia’s opposition was united

This is quite likely the biggest factor. For the first time, Gambian opponents of Jammeh managed to rally behind a single candidate, Adama Barrow, in a coalition. “It emboldened the Gambian people because they knew that the opposition was serious about making a change,” says Jeffrey Smith, founding director of Vanguard Africa.

Zimbabwe’s opposition was horribly fractured in 2008. The main Movement for Democratic Change party split acrimoniously in 2005 into the MDC-T, led by Tsvangirai and the MDC, led by Welshman Ncube. That inevitably meant a split opposition vote and a margin that was easier to massage.

The splitting isn’t over yet. In recent years, former vice president Joice Mujuru has also set up a party. In fact there are an unbelievable 48-plus opposition parties registered in Zimbabwe. Analysts predict that Mugabe will almost certainly win the next polls in 2018 unless the opposition unites.

Says Zimbabwean @Webster_IM:  “The Ecowas & SADCs of this world help those who help themselves. Zimbabweans & their [opposition] are doing very little to help themselves.”

SADC is not the same as ECOWAS

Ecowas is standing firm against Jammeh in a way SADC certainly did not against Mugabe. There are several suggestions as to why this might be. One is that SADC has traditionally been led by loyal liberation-era leaders who are unwilling to see “one of their own” ousted. Zimbabwe’s @sure_kamhunga said: “SADC must use ECOWAS’s solution on leaders refusing the will of the people. No more massaging despotic egos in the name of brotherhood.”

Zimbabwe had the support of its powerful neighbour

Thabo Mbeki maintained that what he called loud diplomacy was “no diplomacy at all”. As Todd Moss of the Centre for Global Development told News24: “South Africa didn’t want to be seen as bullying a neighbour.”

Contrast South Africa’s treatment of Mugabe to Gambia’s neighbour-on-three-sides Senegal, which has already sent in troops. Football fans were quick to see the irony when Senegal also thrashed Zimbabwe’s Warriors team 2-0 at an AFCON Group B match at the Stade de Franceville in Gabon on Thursday evening. Echoing the tweets of many, @Kajeey_ tweeted from Kenya: “#Senegal really hates dictators. Stabilizing the #Gambia at the same time teaching #Zimbabwe a lesson at the ongoing #AFCON2017.”

And South Africa is still shoring up Mugabe, if you agree with this Human Rights Watch report from a week ago.

Kept in the public eye

Foreign media attention on the Gambia was not confined to election day and a few days before ,  says Vanguard Africa’s Smith.  He told News24: “Over the past two years we’ve collectively been able to get unprecedented international attention on the Gambia. Tyrants like Jammeh… are able to get away with the crimes they do because the outside world just isn’t paying attention. [But] we were able to have that much-needed international lens on the country.”

Sure, Zimbabwe was frequently on the foreign pages well before 2008. But all too often, foreign editors wanted the white farmer story rather than the mounting rights abuses. That kind of blinkered coverage may have allowed the Mugabe government to get away with violence, rigging and a peaceful election day, at least in the eyes of some regional leaders.

So, is there any hope for Zimbabwe’s opposition ahead of 2018? Mugabe and his men are certainly watching events in the Gambia with interest: Higher Education Minister Jonathan Moyo has tweeted that the swearing-in of Barrow on foreign soil sets an “awfully terrible precedent”.

Will Zanu-PF draw lessons from what’s happening in the Gambia to make sure Jammeh’s humiliation can’t happen in Zimbabwe?

Or will Zimbabwe’s opposition and civic activists finally unite?

We have likely less than 18 months to find out. – News24