President Robert Mugabe is trying to quell tension ahead of Zimbabwe’s election by applying to push the vote back by two weeks. Still, there’s little time to implement the raft of measures to ensure the poll is credible and safe. GREG NICOLSON met Zimbabwean civil society leaders on Wednesday to find out more.
Okay Machisa sits in the Tudor room of Johannesburg’s Devonshire Hotel. The chairman of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and national director of ZimRights, Zimbabwe’s largest human rights organisation, is over six feet tall with a rugby player’s frame. The room’s ceiling beams are exposed. A row of coat of arms and illustrations of knights line the wall. “It was sad,” says Machisa, asked about the 16 days he recently spent in custody.
The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition held a press conference in Johannesburg on Wednesday following the special summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Maputo to outline concerns and recommendations in the lead up to Zimbabwe’s national election. The Coalition agreed that President Robert Mugabe’s decree to by-pass Parliament in order to comply with a Constitutional Court ruling and hold elections by 31 July would harm the chance of holding free, fair, and peaceful elections.
The clampdown on civil society organisations is one of the key concerns. Between October 2012 and April 2013, the Coalition said 681 human rights defenders had been arrested. Only 20 prosecutions have resulted. Before the referendum on the country’s new constitution, Machisa was arrested for allegedly manipulating voter registration slips, producing statements falsely prejudicing the state, and conspiracy to commit fraud. He handed himself in and the case is ongoing, but the allegations are thin.
The arrests are viewed as strategic attempts by the state to attack the legitimacy of civil society organisations calling for free and fair elections. “We are not distracted. We are not disturbed because we are fighting for the rights of Zimbabweans,” says Machisa. Hardened activists are hard to intimidate, but their supporters are more easily influenced. “We are seen as criminals in front of everybody… That is what (the state) wants to do.”
The 89-year-old Mugabe retained the presidency in 2008 when intimidation, torture and killing of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters prevented a runoff vote and forced the two MDC parties into a power-sharing agreement with the ruling Zanu-PF.
While the activists addressed media and members of the country’s diaspora in Johannesburg on Wednesday, Mugabe was filing an urgent application to the courts to have the election date postponed by two weeks to 14 August. The president initially appeared adamant that elections be held by 31 July, but was likely pressured by the SADC’s suggestion the government approach the Constitutional Court “to create a conducive environment for the holding of peaceful, credible, free and fair elections”.
Trust Maanda from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights was confident on Wednesday an application to postpone the election would be approved. More preparation time is in the best interests of citizens, he said. Even with an extra two weeks, however, it looks unlikely that concerns will be addressed.
The Coalition, made up of more than 350 organisations, outlined four main concerns. In addition to the arrest of activists, journalists are being harassed and operate in a restrictive environment; the registration and education of voters is “exclusionary and chaotic”; and, security chiefs are sending military officers to intimidate dissenters. The Coalition says civil society needs to operate without harassment, the media must operate in a free environment, parliament has to be allowed to ensure elections meet constitutional requirements, the electoral commission must be reformed, observer missions approved, and the security cluster depoliticised.
Implementing that list will require political will, which is sorely lacking. Despite the positive developments associated with the passing of the constitution, senior military officials have publicly denigrated MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai as a “sellout” while supporting Mugabe. Journalists and activists have repeatedly been arrested. Political pressure is being applied to the electoral commission to limit accreditation to foreign and local observers (no observers are yet to be accredited, say Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition). Expatriate Zimbabweans don’t have the right to vote from abroad and are likely to face difficulties if returning.
The role of the security forces is most worrying. Like most political parties, Zanu-PF is a factional beast and it is often suggested that Mugabe is acting at the behest of the generals. In a recent report, “The Elephant in the Room: reforming Zimbabwe’s security sector ahead of elections”, Human Rights Watch stated: “There is an urgent need, ahead of the elections, for Zimbabwe’s security forces to be drastically reformed, to create a political environment conducive for holding non-violent and credible elections. Should the security forces fail to adopt a professional, independent and non-partisan role during elections, the new constitution and other recent reforms including the setting up of a new Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and the licensing of private daily papers, may be insufficient to deliver the elections needed to put Zimbabwe on a democratic and rights-respecting track.”
After conducting research in Harare, Bulawayo, the Midlands, Manicaland, Mashonaland East, Central and West provinces, Human Rights Watch found the security forces’ bias towards Zanu-PF is still translating into abuses against MDC supporters and civil society.
Despite the obvious challenges, Machisa says he is determined to continue fighting, even though is a victim of the security sector’s intimidation. “I cannot be shaken by these things.” He takes heart in something he saw while in custody. The conditions were “terrible”, and with no water or food he relied on visiting family members to cope. A surprising source of encouragement came from prison officers who helped with food and clothing. “There are people in the system who support what we’re doing,” he realised. DM
Photo: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe gestures during his address at the annual conference of his ZANU-PF party in Gweru about 285 km (177 miles) west of the capital Harare, December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
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