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Zimbabwe: Is Mnangagwa using Covid-19 restrictions to consolidate power?

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Tuesday, 21 September 2021 17:59

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa speaks in a pre-recorded message that was played during the U.N. General Assembly, Sustainable Development Goals, at UN headquarters, in New York, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (UNTV via AP)

When Constantino Chiwenga, Zimbabwe's vice-president and health minister, suspended by-elections in October 2020 citing Statutory Instrument (SI) 225A as a means to curb Covid-19, many believed a new date would be set. Instead, the government has remained silent on the matter, with many wondering if this is truly a measure to control the pandemic, or a strategy by the ruling Zanu PF to stop the MDC Alliance from winning back seats it lost after the recall by its breakaway party, the MDC-T.

Relations between Nelson Chamisa – leader of the main opposition party MDC Alliance – and the former leader of the MDC-T (now replaced by Douglas Mwonzora) went sour in February 2018 after the death of Morgan Tsvangirai, following a dispute over the latter’s successor. In the aftermath, the party split into two factions: MDC-T and MDC Alliance.

In the July 2018 general elections, the two parties took on Zanu PF separately, a move which saw the ruling party controversially win the polls. Chamisa has since refused to recognise President Emmerson Mnangagwa as the leader of the country, terming him “illegitimate.”

The battle for Tsvangirai’s successor has been raging on, with the MDC-T working hand in hand with the state apparatus to decimate the MDC Alliance.

I believe the government suspended elections for their own benefit, not that they are afraid the elections will lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Opposition party members believe that MDC-T and Zanu PF leaders had a hand in the 2019 and 2020 judgements by the High Court and Supreme Court respectively, which declared Chamisa’s ascendancy to power – following the death of Tsvangirai in 2018 – null and void and ordered the MDC-T to hold an extraordinary congress to replace the late iconic leader.

To date, more than 40 MPs and 80 councillors from the MDC Alliance have been recalled by Douglas Mwonzora. A total of 117 parliamentary and council seats are vacant, according to Emmanuel Magade, deputy chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).

‘Suspension of by-elections is a betrayal to voters’

Takudzwa Dzumbunu, a resident of Arcadia (a working-class suburb southwest of central Harare), says the indefinite suspension of by-elections is a clear violation of her right to vote. “I feel betrayed. I cannot vote for someone to represent us and then he gets recalled because of internal politics,” she tells The Africa Report.

“I believe the government suspended elections for their own benefit, not that they are afraid the elections will lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases. They are just being selfish. I have a right to be represented by someone.”

Murisi Zwizwai, a representative of the Harare Central constituency where Dzumbunu is from, was recalled from Parliament by the MDC-T in June 2020, alongside others such as Amos Chibaya (of Mkoba constituency in Gweru) and Happymore Chidziva (of Highfields West constituency in Harare).

In Zimbabwe, members of parliament play a critical role in law-making processes: they bridge the gap between citizens from their respective constituencies and the government.

They also play a watchdog role by asking government officials – including ministers – vital questions on behalf of the electorate.

The government remains defiant

Speaking in Parliament in July 2021, Ziyambi Ziyambi, the justice and legal parliamentary affairs minister, says by-elections will remain suspended until the country achieves herd immunity by vaccinating about 60% of its 16 million population.

Statistics from the health ministry show that as of 11 September 2021, a total of 1.8 million people had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

In late August 2021, ZEC commissioner Qhubani Moyo said the electoral commission was ready to hold elections but were waiting for Mnangagwa to exercise his executive powers and proclaim the date.

Wellington Gadzikwa, a political analyst based in Mutare, says at the moment there is no justification for suspending by-elections.

“The current leaders are feeling insecure and if they had [the power], they would prevent an election for good. Now there is no justification for not holding the by-elections and it is clear that the leaders no longer care about the democratic process nor have they ever cared before,” he says.

Ian Makone, secretary for elections at the MDC Alliance, which celebrated 22 years of its formation on 11 September 2021, says recalls and suspension of by-elections were a move by Zanu PF and MDC-T to decimate the main opposition party.

“We are sure recalls were a conspiracy to destroy MDC Alliance and leadership of Chamisa. It has failed. The conspirators know that we would retain the seats in a by-election. Going to court would be academic and futile at this time. [We would] rather spend the time with the people,” he tells The Africa Report.

In March this year, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) and the Election Resource Centre (ERC) called on the government to desist from enacting SIs that undermine the spirit of the Constitution, but to put in place measures to ensure the holding of  “Covid-19 compliant by-elections, to enable citizens to peacefully exercise their constitutionally enshrined political rights.”

During a strict lockdown put in place by Mnangagwa in July 2021, Zanu PF continued with its intra party activities, including elections and meetings.

Maxwell Saungweme, a Harare-based political analyst, tells The Africa Report that Mnangagwa is consolidating his grip on power.

“What Mnangagwa is doing is authoritarian consolidation. He is taking advantage of the context to consolidate his authoritarian rule in Zimbabwe. He is taking advantage of everything from Covid-19, putting restrictions, [yet he,] his wife [Auxillia], Zanu PF leaders […] have been holding meetings,” he says.

Other countries in the region such as Malawi, Uganda, Niger, and Zambia have successfully held their presidential and legislative elections amidst the pandemic.

  • In South Africa, a move by the Electoral Commission (IEC) to suspend local elections was blocked by the Constitutional Court and Nkosazana Dlamini, the minister of cooperative governance, has set 1 November 2021 as the date for these local elections.

The IEC had wanted to postpone the 2021 local government elections (for the political leadership of the country’s 257 municipalitie), that had originally been scheduled for 27 October 2021.

As Zimbabwe begins to ease its Covid-19 restrictions, members of the MDC Alliance hope the government will announce the date for by-elections.

Disorganisation of the MDC Alliance

MDC Alliance members, including key people such as former legislators, have defected to join Zanu PF in recent months. Saungweme believes Mnangagwa is using State resources at his disposal to infiltrate the MDC Alliance.

“He is using a lot of resources, which they have in terms of State, to infiltrate the MDC Alliance [and this has led] to defections. He is working with [Political Actors Dialogue] POLAD leaders and other outfits of the opposition parties. He is doing his best under the circumstances to consolidate his authoritarian grip on the country,” he says.

Saungweme says the MDC Alliance’s disorganisation is worsening the situation. “It has […] political capital and popular president [Chamisa], but it has no official party offices and no secretariat. With that level of chaos you cannot remove Zanu PF, a party that has some level of organisation, […] State power and […] the military on its side.”

“A lot of people are defecting because they see no hope in the [MDC Alliance] party. [Chamisa] is underfunded and he does not know how to [get] the military [on] his side. He is disorganised. Unless there is some implosion in Zanu PF, the ruling party will still rig and win the 2023 elections using the military and other key State institutions.”

Makone says membership of political parties is voluntary and the defectors will soon know the folly of their decision to defect.

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