When Zimbabwe stops pretending to be a democracy

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of www.democracyinafrica.org. Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Monday, 23 January 2023 11:31, updated on Friday, 27 January 2023 09:08

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa in March 17 2020 ( AFP / Jekesai NJIKIZANA)

On Saturday 14 January, Harare based lawyer Kudzai Kadzere was beaten by members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), leaving him with a fractured hand that required surgery.

Images shared online show a long run of stitches up the inside of his arm and across his wrist, forming a bloody L shape. His “crime” was that he did his job by representing 24 four members of the opposition political party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), who had been arrested for allegedly holding an illegal meeting. “My car was blocked by riot police who started beating me … It’s sad that not only my rights have been infringed [on], but also the rights of my clients to access their lawyer,” Kadzere says.

The next day tragedy turned into farce. Kadzere was arrested when he went to report the assault. Despite having visited the police station voluntarily, he was accused of having escaped from lawful custody. The thuggish treatment of Kadzere is depressing, but not surprising. No one who has been watching Zimbabwe in recent months would have expected anything else. Ahead of the general elections later this year, the government is reverting to type. Behind in the polls, with limited support even within his own party and fresh out of ideas, President Emmerson Mnangagwa knows that only intimidation and electoral manipulation will keep him in power.

With a government that has given up on trying to hide its authoritarian foundations, 2023 is likely to be the country’s worst election for the next 15 years.

No more pretending

The squalid autocracy that President Mnangagwa presides over couldn’t be more different from the Zimbabwe he promised to create. Ahead of the 2018 general election, Mnangagwa pledged to usher in a new period of democracy and development distinguished by “free and fair” elections. The dark days experienced under his predecessor, Robert Mugabe, would be confined to the dustbin of history, as the country opened up both politically and economically.

Desperate to persuade Zimbabwean voters and international partners to overlook his violent past, Mnangagwa’s campaign even put up posters proclaiming his commitment to good governance and human rights. However, this was little more than a masquerade, a piece of political theatre that was not even sustained through the election period itself.

When opposition supporters gathered to protest against delays in announcing the presidential results and the manipulation of the process, some of the soldiers deployed to disperse them opened fire. Six people were killed. A new wave of intimidation of opposition leaders and activists followed, and still exists today.

One of the main reasons for this shift in approach is that Mnangagwa’s confidence trick didn’t work. His government failed to secure the international investment it needed, didn’t manage to remove sanctions, and has proved unable to provide even the most basic services to its citizens.

In turn, the combination of broken promises, economic hardship and rampant corruption has further undermined government support. According to the widely respected Afrobarometer survey, trust in the ruling party declined from 58% to 44% between 2017 and March/April 2022.

This fall went hand-in-hand with a rise in support for the main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, and CCC, a new political vehicle built out of the ashes of the Movement for Democratic Change. Despite continuous government efforts to use divide-and-rule strategies to undermine opposition unity, the 2022 poll revealed that Chamisa was the most popular candidate for president, leading Mnangagwa by 3%. This may not sound like a big gap, but it was the first time that Chamisa has been placed in the lead by the Afrobarometer and it underestimates his true support.

When you consider that many opposition supporters are scared to say they do not support the government for fear of retribution, it seems likely that Chamisa’s advantage is much bigger – and that Mnangagwa would face an uphill battle to win an election that was anywhere close to being free and fair.

The repressive reflex

The authoritarian tactics used to ensure ZANU-PF stays in power represent a finely tuned combination of the old and the new. While the use of force arguably peaked during the 2008 presidential elections, physical violence is now buttressed by a wider set of controls over almost all aspects of civic and political life, pushing the country in a dangerous direction. Moreover, the military has further expanded its political and economic influence, moving the country further away from genuine civilian rule.

The rural support base of the government, which keeps it in power, has long been built on a combination of patronage, disinformation, food aid and violence. Where the campaign in 2018 saw a relaxation of control that enabled the opposition to campaign in many rural areas for the first time in a decade, in 2023, traditional leaders are once again being mobilised to block access to the opposition and coerce voters to the polls.

In Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe, citizens do not enjoy freedom of association or freedom of speech, undermining any possibility of a credible election.

The political control this gives Mnangagwa is bolstered by a raft of legislation that has curtailed what few civil liberties Zimbabweans had left. The new Private Voluntary Act (PVO) passed by parliament in December is a classic piece of ‘anti-NGO’ legislation that undermines the ability of civil society groups to operate. Under this law, the government can cancel the registration of any organisations operating in a manner deemed to be “political”, and arbitrarily interfere with how they are run. Although the new rules have not yet been signed into law by President Mnangagwa, some of them are already being implemented. In particular, the increasingly centralised control of civic activity is being used to block a wide range of activities, including voter registration drives.

Meanwhile, the Cyber and Data Protection Act of 2021 “further undermined the rights of Zimbabweans, including civil society groups and human rights defenders”, consolidating existing censorship strategies. This is emblematic of a broader trend, in which the law has been turned into a political weapon to detain and exhaust government critics. As I write this article, opposition leader Job Sikhala has been in jail for six months after being detained on trumped up charges and denied bail numerous times. Others who have suffered similar treatment include journalist and anti-corruption leader Hopewell Chin’ono.

Worse still, three opposition youth leaders – Cecilia Chimbiri, Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova – were arrested when they spoke out about how they were abducted and sexually assaulted after being taken into police custody.

In Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe, citizens do not enjoy freedom of association or freedom of speech, undermining any possibility of a credible election.

A Potemkin election?

As if widespread repression isn’t enough, the government will also exert great control over the election process through its malign influence over the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries, and the harassment of voters and election observers. As things stand, Zimbabwe is on course to hold a Potemkin election that will keep Mnangagwa in power no matter how unpopular he becomes.

This raises the question of how the international community should respond. It sometimes makes sense to offer a series of ‘carrots’ to encourage reform, such as the suggestion that Zimbabwe be readmitted to the Commonwealth if it meets certain minimum standards. However, when a government clearly demonstrates its disdain for democracy on a daily basis, it is beyond naïve to believe that ‘bringing them back into the club’ will make any difference.

When faced with a government causing so much pain to its own citizens, the first thing the international community should ensure is that it does no harm. This means not giving a dysfunctional and abusive government a veneer of respectability that it does not deserve – and being clear that an election held under these circumstances is not really an election at all.

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