Outside observers were both surprised and dismayed by the loud applause Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe received at the start of the 27th summit of heads of state and government of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) last month in Zambia's capital, Lusaka.
By the end of the two-day conference, Mugabe emerged triumphant, having avoided criticism from his southern African compatriots for his mishandling of the national economy and his gross human rights violations against opposition groups and civil society organizations, accusations shared by the international community.
Inevitably, this underscores the failure of the much-hailed New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) initiative to rein on one of Africa's last "Big Men" whose ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) reflects a phenomenon which has been tragically taking place on the continent for decades, principally, a lack of adherence by African leaders to good governance and political unaccountability to the electorate.
Following its inception in 2001, NEPAD has been envisaged by its founding members as an ambitious and comprehensive initiative, designed to address the negative direction of underdevelopment and poverty, as well as to end the continued and deepening marginalization of Africa in an interdependent international system.
It can be distinguished from other failed past initiatives in that it has been initiated and driven by African leaders to help promote peace, security and economic development at a grassroots level, while consolidating democracy, good governance and sound economic management. For the first time, African leaders have personally committed themselves to holding each other accountable for its implementation.
However, six years on, questions have started to surface about the effectiveness and viability of the entire NEPAD process. The main question of the day reflects both the fear and optimism surrounding the future of this initiative.
Whether NEPAD will succeed in achieving its goals ultimately depends on three factors: the support of the developed states in investing in the continent; the continual commitment of African leaders to the process itself; and the continued implementation and guaranteed integrity of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).
As the most important innovative component of NEPAD, the APRM represents the commitment of African states to submit themselves to a peer review process to demonstrate their adherence to good corporate governance and socioeconomic development, to democracy and good governance, as well as to good economic governance and management.
It presents itself as the only opportunity for African governments and institutions to address the challenges of deepening poverty, political turmoil, unemployment and underdevelopment.
However, the APRM faces a daunting task to live up to its expectations, given some of the limitations that exist within the process, as well as other environmental constraints surrounding it.
As an instrument voluntarily acceded to by member states of the African Union (AU) to facilitate an African self-monitoring mechanism, it lacks the authority to impose sanctions on non-compliant governments. The effectiveness of the peer review process largely depends on the level of persuasion that other African governments may exert on the states that are being reviewed.
A continuous reliance on institutional capacity rather than on political will is threatening to undermine the process even further. APRM has yet to bring an end to the solidarity existing among African leaders who have long supported each other to remain in office by rigging elections and undermining the election process. This deficiency was apparent at the SADC head of state and government summit where member states displayed yet another show of solidarity with the octogenarian Zimbabwean dictator, whose people are facing acute food shortages in the midst of an economic meltdown.
To the dismay of Zimbabwe's weary population and frustrated opposition groups, principally the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), SADC leaders reiterated their call for a drop of targeted sanctions against Mugabe by the U.S. and the EU while calling on both the MDC and ZANU-PF to "expedite the process of negotiations as soon as possible" ahead of the all-contentious national elections scheduled for June next year.
Given the unwillingness by SADC heads of state to put pressure on Mugabe for political reform and Zimbabwe's hesitancy to submit to the voluntary peer review process, Zimbabwe has become the Achilles heel of the entire NEPAD and APRM process.
It has made a mockery of any pretence that African statesmen are moving ahead in tackling good governance concerns on the continent.
The extent of NEPAD's success will ultimately depend on the resolve of all African governments and civil society to submit themselves to scrutiny, while holding Zimbabwe and other non-compliant states accountable to their populations.
The challenge facing Africans now is to sustain the optimism and hope that surrounded the process by taking ownership not only of Africa's problems, but also of the continent's future as a whole.