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Zimbabwe’s democratic reforms fraying at the edges?

Zimbabwe’s democratic reforms fraying at the edges?
Citizens Coalition for Change legislator Job Sikhala at court in Harare in 2021. He was arrested and detained without bail in June 2022 in what the opposition party described as 'trumped-up, arbitrary and politically motivated' charges. (Photo: Frank Chikowore)

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration is being accused of the ‘arbitrary arrests’ of government officials – including legislator Job Sikhala – as well as other human rights violations ahead of next year’s watershed elections in Zimbabwe. 

Despite promising a raft of key democratic reforms when he took the oath of office after a military-assisted transition that deposed the late dictator Robert Mugabe five years ago, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration is being accused of cracking down on dissent as the 2023 general elections draw close.

The main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), and other pro-democracy groups have raised the red flag on human rights violations, including “arbitrary arrests” of government critics, ahead of the watershed polls.

Mnangagwa, who controversially won the 2018 presidential elections, is widely expected to square off again with vibrant and youthful CCC leader Nelson Chamisa in next year’s polls if he is re-elected at his Zanu-PF party’s elective congress set for October.

Meanwhile, Chamisa – who was forced to form a new party early this year after a faction of the MDC Alliance led by Douglas Mwonzora recalled several legislators and councillors from various municipalities countrywide who were loyal to him and claimed ownership of the party name, finances and buildings – says his party is ready to govern despite walking along a thorny road.

His newly formed CCC party thumped Mnangagwa’s 60-year-old party in parliamentary and municipal by-elections held on 26 March.

Some of Chamisa’s party officials and supporters, including legislators Job Sikhala and Godfrey Sithole, were arrested and detained without bail in what the opposition party described as “trumped-up, arbitrary and politically motivated” charges.

Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa

An election billboard promoting Zanu-PF’s Emmerson Mnangagwa in Harare, Zimbabwe, on 26 July 2018. (Photo: EPA- EFE / Yeshiel Panchia)

Sikhala and Sithole were arrested in June on allegations of inciting CCC supporters to engage in violence in Harare’s satellite town of Chitungwiza after the abduction and subsequent murder of fellow party member Moreblessing Ali. Authorities have since arrested a Zanu-PF member, Pius Jamba, and charged him with Ali’s murder.

Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of Transform Zimbabwe, is one of the many government critics who are complaining of being persecuted by the government through slowing the wheels of justice.

Former Zanu-PF youth leader Jim Kunaka says the level of impunity in Zimbabwe has reached alarming levels and called on state security agents to do their jobs professionally.

“We are surprised that after attaining independence in 1980 we still have people who are abducted for having different political views. We demand that the police should tell us whether Itai Dzamara [who was abducted in 2015] is still alive or not,” said Kunaka.

Past injustices like the Matabeleland and Midlands massacres of the 1980s are also causing tensions between Mnangagwa’s government and victims of the atrocities. This arose after Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi told a meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination held in Geneva, Switzerland, that the Harare administration was not going to arrest the perpetrators of the massacres, arguing that they had since been forgiven through a clemency order issued by then president Robert Mugabe in 1990.

Mbuso Fuzwayo, coordinator of Ibhetshu LikaZulu, an organisation pushing for reparations and compensations of Gukurahundi survivors, told DM168 that Ziyambi’s statement was “irresponsible and not sensible”.

“It goes to show that the leadership of this country is not for the people and it confirms the mindset of the country’s leadership on issues to do with compensation and reparations,” said Fuzwayo.

As Mnangagwa closes the democratic space ahead of the 2023 polls, political parties and candidates intending to contest next year’s elections have not been spared either. The country’s electoral body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), has gazetted astronomical nomination fees to be paid by presidential, parliamentary and municipal candidates, prompting veteran opposition figure Egypt Dzinemunhenzva, legislator Rusty Markham and activist Tapiwanashe Chiriga to approach the courts to seek the annulment of ZEC’s announcement. The country’s laws do not allow political parties to get funding from abroad.

Meanwhile, Zanu-PF and the CCC traded barbs ahead of the parliamentary by-election on 27 August, which was won by Zanu-PF in Gokwe-Kabuyuni in the Midlands region, with the two political parties accusing each other of perpetrating political violence. Four journalists were allegedly severely assaulted by suspected Zanu-PF members on 25 August before Chamisa’s final rally ahead of voting. Roads were allegedly barricaded, and Chamisa’s motorcade was reportedly attacked by machete-wielding Zanu-PF youths.

A CCC convoy was allegedly waylaid in Wedza last week by suspected Zanu-PF functionaries, according to CCC deputy national spokesperson Gift Siziba, and the homestead and property of a local CCC activist were reportedly destroyed by ruling party members.

Chamisa also took to his Twitter account to claim that villagers in Uzumba were being terrorised by Zanu-PF for backing him. Chamisa’s party has accused the police of inaction following the attacks.

However, national police spokesperson senior assistant commissioner Paul Nyathi rejected the claims.

“As the police we only start to investigate when a [complaint has been] lodged with us. At this point we have not received such complaints,” said Nyathi.

But Zanu-PF information director Tafadzwa Mugwadi distanced his party from the violence, saying the opposition was always stage-managing in order to tarnish the image of the country.

“We know that Chamisa and his people are always creating such fictitious allegations ahead of key international forums in order to tarnish the image of President Mnangagwa, the ruling party and government so that the country remains on sanctions. But Zimbabweans are now aware of this; the opposition has nothing to offer to the people,” said Mugwadi.

Ngarivhume says the time is now ripe for Zimbabweans to stand up against Mnangagwa’s administration, albeit peacefully.

“We need to [ask] ourselves what will happen to this country if we don’t rise up and say enough is enough!… This will be done [within] the confines of the law and the provisions of the supreme law of the land.”

Chamisa has called for the UN to monitor the polls to avoid a disputed outcome in 2023.

“We expect reforms to be done before elections, but even if they refuse, go in numbers and vote to make rigging impossible. I am talking to the UN, the Southern African Development Community and the African Union because the UN should be there, polling agents at every polling station, and all eyes should be on the election,” said Chamisa to his supporters in Kariba.

Political analyst Rashweat Mukundu believes that the country is poised for growth if it gets its politics right.

“The key is to have free, fair and credible elections; once that is done everything will fall in place,” said Mukundu. DM

Frank Chikowore is a multimedia journalist, researcher and filmmaker

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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