Zimbabwe: How Zanu PF uses traditional chiefs to buy votes in rural areas

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Monday, 3 January 2022 07:51

ZANU PF supporters gesture after attending the final rally at the National Sports Stadium in Harare
ZANU PF supporters gesture after attending the final rally at the National Sports Stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 28, 2018. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

The Zanu PF party has long been accused by civil society organisations and opposition leaders of using state resources and traditional chiefs to perpetuate the ruling party’s ideologies and influence elections particularly in their heartland: the rural areas. The recent comments made by Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, when he threatened a local chief, is indicative of how Zanu PF exerts its control over traditional leaders. 

During a funeral, Chief Murinye of Masvingo (born Ephias Munodawafa) – who publicly admitted that he is a die-hard Zanu PF supporter –  accused ‘criminals’ surrounding President Emmerson Mnangagwa, including his sons, allies, Zanu PF leaders and top government officials, of corruption and looting gold ore in the Masvingo province.

Following his comments, Mnangagwa summoned 272 traditional chiefs to the capital Harare to issue a chilling warning to them to halt criticism of the government.

On Friday 17 December, Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga told the traditional chiefs delegation that what Chief Murinye said to the “paramount chief [Mnangagwa] is never done”.

Chiwenga, a retired military general who led the military coup that toppled long-term ruler Robert Mugabe leading to Mnangagwa’s presidency in November 2017, reminded the traditional chiefs that they can be stripped of their chieftainship.

He added that Chief Murinye would be disciplined after being investigated by the local government minister, July Moyo, and the Chiefs Council that is headed by Fortune Charumbira.

Chiwenga’s threatening words were widely seen as a strategy to control traditional chiefs and silence government critics.

Traditional chiefs are Zanu PF’s lifeblood in rural areas

Traditional chiefs remain important to the government in rural areas as they help mobilise votes for the ruling party using state resources.

For instance, in the run-up to the 2018 elections, and recently, the Mnangagwa-led regime bought brand new off-road cars for the traditional chiefs despite the ongoing economic crisis, a deteriorating health sector and a crippled education sector.

They are given monthly allowances and free agricultural inputs from the State.

Traditional leaders, including village heads and chiefs, politicise food aid from both the State and NGOs on behalf of Zanu PF supporters, according to a March 2021 report titled ‘The Politics of Food: A Contextual Analysis of the Distribution of Food Aid in Zimbabwe’ by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a coalition of over 20 human rights organisations and the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a civil society organisation.

“They [traditional chiefs] take advantage of their role and influence within the distribution matrix,” the report says.

Traditional leaders’ responsibility is to promote cultural issues. They are not supposed to be political instruments, yet we have chiefs like Murinye and Charumbira making declarations that they support Zanu PF.

Food aid is usually politicised by the ruling party, working in cahoots with traditional leaders, for purposes of political control and building electoral support for the ruling party in rural areas, according to the report.

The Traditional Act and the current constitution make it unlawful for traditional chiefs to be partisan or even to perpetuate the interest of any political party.

However, several chiefs in the country are unapologetically card-carrying members of certain political parties.

At a ruling party’s annual conference in Bindura, a small town about 86 km northeast of Harare, it was declared that traditional leaders were “owners of the [Zanu PF] party”.

Manipulating their roles

“Traditional leaders’ responsibility is to promote cultural issues. They are not supposed to be political instruments, yet we have chiefs like Murinye and Charumbira making declarations that they support Zanu PF,” Nqobani Sithole, a Bulawayo-based lawyer tells The Africa Report.

“We might claim that we have a constitutional democracy, but no one takes us seriously if we have traditional chiefs that are compromised – traditional chiefs that perpetuate Zanu PF’s ideologies and assist them in elections.”

Kudakwashe Munemo, a political analyst, says the manipulation of traditional leaders using overt and covert means defeats the purpose of their role as custodians of the communities that they serve.

“Given that government-sponsored aid is distributed with the involvement of traditional leadership structures, State resources end up being distributed along partisan lines and thus State resources are accessed by only those perceived to be supporters of the ruling party,” he says.

Essentially the abuse of state resources and chiefs is part of vote-buying by the ruling party.

“If Zimbabwe is to have free, fair and credible elections, traditional leaders must abide by the constitution in discharging their roles and no party or individual must be allowed to manipulate their roles.”

Opposition parties, particularly the MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa, are not allowed by law enforcement agents to conduct the same food distribution in rural areas as the ruling party.

Rashweat Mukundu, a political analyst, tells The Africa Report that the use of traditional chiefs by Zanu PF to lure support is part of the concerns over the lack of freeness and fairness of elections in Zimbabwe.

“Essentially the abuse of state resources and chiefs is part of vote-buying by the ruling party,” he says.

Zanu PF & some chiefs’ relationship goes sour over Chinese mining

There has been a rift between the ruling party and some traditional chiefs in selected parts of the country since Mnangagwa took power in November 2017.

In Uzumba, about 161km from Harare in Mashonaland East Province, traditional chiefs and villagers threatened to vote for the MDC Alliance after the government allowed Chinese miner Heijin to mine granite, which would see cause the eviction of tens of villagers in this Zanu PF stronghold.

In November, the government suspended the operations of Heijin.

In Manicaland province, traditional leaders and villagers were arrested after protesting over Chinese companies, including Anjin, which have left communities languishing in poverty with no jobs and poor infrastructure despite mining diamonds in their area.

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