Political conflicts in some parts of southern Africa marred a year that had started on a promising note, especially with former Botswana President, Sir Ketumile Masire, following the footsteps of African heroes such as Tanzania's Julius Nyerere who voluntarily left office.
All Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, except the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were represented, most at heads of state level, in Gaborone in March to witness a momentous ceremony to bid farewell to the 72-year-old Masire, who ruled Botswana for about 18 years, and chaired SADC for nearly 16 years. Festus Mogae, who was his deputy and minister of finance and economic development, took over as president. He will lead the ruling party into the next elections in 1999.
With 1998 having started at such a high note, and with SADC countries vowing, two months earlier at the Council of Ministers in Maputo, to ratify as many protocols as possible during the course of the year, many had looked forward to another bright year. The two previous years had registered positive economic growth rates, with the highest average in 1996 at 4.1 percent.
But as fate had it, regional currencies started succumbing to the Asian contagion - the South African rand fell by more than 25 percent, and the Zimbabwe dollar by close to 100 percent. With them, most other currencies in the region tumbled, notably the Malawi and Zambia kwacha.
The currency slump, which began in the first quarter of 1998, came at a time when southern African leaders were intensifying their campaign for a negotiated globalisation as well as cancellation of their unpayable external debts. The leaders met in Windhoek, Namibia, in May during the World Economic Forum-sponsored Southern African Economic Summit where they took an opportunity to sensitise some of the world's leading business people about how Africa's mounting debt was impeding development.
At that meeting, host President Sam Nujoma said: "What I am advocating here is for the debts of the developing countries to be written off in order to allow them to spend their resources on industrialisation, human resources development and productive economic development".
Two months later, the SADC leaders came back to Namibia, this time in Swakopmund where they underlined their commitment to cooperation with the private sector during the second edition of the Southern Africa International Dialogue on Smart Partnership.
The long-term development objective of the concept, adopted from Asia, is to have mutual gains so that all stakeholders involved - individuals, companies or nations - can prosper. Such a paradigm is what countries such as Zimbabwe certainly need especially given the protracted conflict between government and the labour movement during 1998.
As countries were battling to arrest the currency collapse and the resultant slow economic growth during the first half of the year, the DRC, one of SADC's latest entrants, slipped into a different crisis. A Tutsi-led rebellion backed by Rwanda and Uganda - part of the alliance that had shored up the Laurent Kabila revolution that ousted dictator Mobuto Sese Seko 15 months earlier, threatened to bring down the new government.
The rebellion, happening barely five months after US President Bill Clinton's much publicised African safari during which he visited selected countries, including Rwanda and Uganda, put the DRC's contribution to SADC at stake. Although Clinton's visit was billed as a historic opportunity for Africa, and linked to the new US trade policy on Africa, his decision to shun some democratically elected governments including Tanzania, raised more questions than answers about Washington's commitment to democracy.
By the first week of August, the rebels had gained a lot of ground, and were advancing towards the capital Kinshasa, and the Great Lakes Region had once again slid back into military crisis. The Kabila government, which all SADC governments had accepted as legitimate, was in danger of going the way it came.
But Kabila, whose country is one of the poorest in the world yet by far one of the most richly endowed in terms of natural resources, had made enough friends in the southern part of Africa. He quickly solicited for military assistance from his SADC neighbours. A decision was quickly taken at a meeting in Zimbabwe, which was attended by most SADC defence ministers, to send soldiers to defend the Kinshasa government.
Three countries - Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe -- felt compelled to help a SADC ally, and deployed soldiers that successfully stopped the rebels, who had come within 60 km of capturing the capital.
However, the military intervention caused tension among SADC member states. Some felt a diplomatic solution was needed while others said a military involvement was inevitable given that the rebels had come within days of pouncing on the capital and that the conflict was an aggression on one country by another.
A war of words was exchanged in the media between Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and South African President Nelson Mandela, with the former labelling the later "a hypocrite" for supporting rebels and their allies who wanted to remove a legitimate government by force.
The SADC allies, they argued, had also intervened in support of an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) resolution which says governments should not be removed by force. All African governments that are parties to the OAU, including SADC member states endorsed the resolution.
However, after a series of marathon meetings on the issue, most of them at summit level, SADC countries began to speak in one language. In a communiqué at the annual summit in Mauritius in September, the leaders "commended the governments of Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe for timeously providing troops to assist the government and people of the DRC defeat the illegal attempt by rebels and their allies to capture the capital city, Kinshasa, and other strategic areas".
Since then, several other meetings were convened in search of a negotiated settlement to the war, which now enters its fifth month. The Zambian capital Lusaka has played host to many of such meetings, which culminated in a cease-fire agreement broached in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The rebels refused to honour it saying they were not represented at the meeting, although Uganda, commander of the allied rebels, was present.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has repeatedly assured parties involved that he will use his influence to persuade rebels to sign the Addis Ababa peace agreement. But the rebels have made it clear that they will not be part to any agreement reached at in their absence. It comes as no surprisse that South Africa has said it wants the rebels represented at any future talks. It remains however, to be seen if Kabila, who is strongly opposed to direct negotiations with rebels, will agree.
In Lesotho, the mountainous kingdom of about two million people looked set to fall apart when civilians and the army joined hands with the opposition in protesting results of May elections which they claimed to have been rigged. But a SADC military intervention led by South Africa and Botswana put the situation under control.
The DRC and Lesotho situations have carved a niche in the history of southern Africa, and that of the continent as a whole. This is the first time the region, and the second for the whole continent, that Africa has been left to handle its own security issues without involvement of the world's superpowers. The precedence was set by the Economic Commission for West African States (ECOWAS) when it single-handedly solved the civil war in Sierra Leone.
The record of UN peacekeeping missions in Africa has not been impressive, especially in Somalia and Angola, and it comes as no surprise that UN Secretary-General Koffi Annan has now come to support African initiatives in solving African problems. Recently he said that Africa should solve its problems collectively "so that it can turn attention to economic and social development" adding that the UN would think cautiously before sending a peacekeeping mission to the DRC.
In Angola, prospects for peace have once again evaporated into thin air as the opposition National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) continues to violate the 1994 Lusaka Peace Accord. Worried by the re-emergence of war in Angola, the SADC summit unanimously agreed to an appeal by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos to isolate guerrilla chief Jonas Savimbi.
The summit declared Savimbi "a war criminal" and unfit to represent Unita party at the negotiating table.
"The behaviour of Jonas Savimbi is that of a war criminal and, thus, renders him objectively incapable of leading his party (Unita) on to the road of peace in Angola," the leaders said in a statement.
After the 31 August deadline, Unita was expelled from the Government of National Unity and Reconciliation (GNUR) and had its members of parliament suspended because it had "taken up arms and violated the constitution of Angola, the laws on political parties and the Lusaka Protocol".
Observers say the rapid disintegration of the Lusaka peace process, which was worsened by the death of special representative of the UN Secretary-General, Alioune Blondin Beye in a mysterious air crash in Togo, has left the future of the UN observer Mission in Angola (MONUA) in doubt of the success in the peace process.
Diplomats say increased fighting in central Angola and the heightened war of words through the media between President Dos Santos and the opposition movement has thrust the country into full scale, if undeclared, war. On the other hand, international diamond traders are fuelling the civil war by buying diamonds from Unita, according to Global Witness, a British-based environmentalist group. The group estimates that since 1992 Unita has earned more than US$3,5 billion from the sale of diamonds, helping it to re-arm. Global Witness says the trade has continued in violation of UN sanctions imposed early this year.
And with many deadlines on compliance with terms of the Lusaka protocol having come and passed, and the UN having scaled down its operations in the country, prospects for peace in Angola now hang in the balance. The UN reduced its peacekeeping force in Angola from 7,000 to 1,000. Other highlights of the year include elections in Swaziland, SADC's only absolute monarchy, were eventually held in October, after several postponements. The elections, held in a reportedly peaceful environment, took place on 16 and 24 October after a temporary break due to heavy rains.
Away from the political conflicts, the Mauritius SADC summit signed a new protocol on Tourism Development with a hope to co-ordinate what has become the region's fastest growing sector.
The summit, which witnessed the coming into force of three protocols after they were ratified by the required two-thirds majority, endorsed an addendum on the Prevention of Violence against Women and Children to strengthen commitments made a year earlier. In 1997, the SADC summit signed a Declaration on Gender and Development.
The three protocols that were ratified are on Shared Water Course Systems, Transport, Communications and Meteorology, and on Energy. The coming into force of these protocols should send a positive signal to investors about the region's commitment to creating a single economic space, with little or no political instability.
Southern Africa's search for peace and stability has received a spiritual boost as the region played host to the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare, Zimbabwe on 3-14 December. With the theme, "Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope", the assembly added another dimension to regional and continental campaigns to end economic, political and social injustice.
Although 1998 was a political turbulent year for most countries in the southern African region, the good rains the region is currently enjoying and prospects of a better harvest usher in new opportunities in 1999. (SARDC)