crushing dissent

Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF: Liberation party turned oppressor

By Veneranda Langa

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Posted on August 17, 2023 16:02

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa arrives to address a ZANU-PF rally in Harare, Zimbabwe, 9 August 2023. (Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)
Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa arrives to address a ZANU-PF rally in Harare, Zimbabwe, 9 August 2023. (Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)

In power for 43 years, the party of Zimbabwe’s former freedom fighters is poised to continue its undemocratic rule, intimidating voters and jailing critics.

Like several other African liberation movements, the leaders of the Zimbabwe African Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) claim that they are protecting the gains of fighting for independence from colonial rule as they enforce a one-party state in all but name. But who are they protecting them from, exactly?

Amid undemocratic rule, human rights violations and overall bad governance in Zimbabwe, the liberators have become oppressors. With less than a week to go before the country goes to the polls, analysts uncover the multiple ways in which the once-heroic party has clung on to power.

The military factor

The army is only one among several factors that have prolonged ZANU-PF’s stay in power for more than four decades, according to Blessing-Miles Tendi, an associate professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

ZANU-PF is the party of independence, and this status attracted its considerable support from 1980 to about 1995.  As the incumbent party, ZANU-PF has consistently manipulated the rules of the election game to its advantage,” Tendi tells The Africa Report.

In 2017, former president Robert Mugabe was removed in a military coup and was succeeded by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who seeks a second term in the 23 August elections. Mnangagwa’s government incorporates military chiefs, including his vice president, Constantino Chiwenga, a former army general.

But Tendi says military support for ZANU-PF is not the only aspect of its grip on power.

Liberation thugs

“There was a coup, not a military-assisted transition, in Zimbabwe in 2017,” says Tendi, referring to the euphemism used both within Zimbabwe and by international observers.

Western countries that had shunned ZANU-PF under President Robert Mugabe had little to say when tanks rolled down the streets of Harare, the capital.

“No Western state condemned the 2017 military coup or took action against it,” says Tendi. “The branches of the military have varying levels of support or loyalty for the incumbent party. We should not treat the military as a monolithic entity,” he adds.

In the past, top army officials have said they will not recognise any Zimbabwean leader who does not have liberation war credentials.

In 2011, the former commander of the 3 Infantry Brigade, General Douglas Nyikayaramba, who died of Covid in 2021, told the media that army generals will refuse to acknowledge the prospect of Zimbabwe being ruled by a political party other than ZANU-PF, owing to its role in the country’s liberation.

Today, a radical group called Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ), reportedly run by CIO deputy director Retired Brigadier-General Walter Tapfumaneyi, is campaigning to ensure that ZANU-PF stays in power.

“Some sections of the military will not accept an opposition victory; some sections will accept it; some sections will be neutral, while others are apathetic. Military politics are complex,” Tendi says.

Liberation war veterans are getting old, so war credentials cannot be a permanent requirement. Mnangagwa participated during the war and turns 81 three weeks after the election.

The Gukurahundi massacres

Mugabe’s tactics to eliminate rivals were effective and deadly. He ordered the 1983-1987 Gukurahundi genocide where government forces massacred more than 20,000 unarmed Ndebele civilians in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces.

Western states turned a blind eye to the 1980s Gukurahundi genocide, which destroyed ZAPU [the Zimbabwe African People’s Union], a formidable opposition party with roots in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle,” Tendi says.

The ZANU-PF-led government has never acknowledged or apologised to the families of the genocide victims or compensated them.

Mnangagwa was the minister of state for national security during the massacres, and ZANU-PF has not made major strides in gaining support in that part of the country.

Institutionalised political repression

Wellington Gadzikwa, a lecturer in political studies at the University of Zimbabwe, says most liberation movements in Africa combine government and the party into one because they believe they are the ones that must protect the gains of independence.

ZANU-PF controls the media, public opinion and the rural areas through chiefs

“They think that if any other party comes into power, it will reverse the gains they have made.  ZANU-PF wants to rule forever because they believe they liberated the country,” says Gadzikwa.

“Any other political party is labelled as not homegrown. Since independence, ZANU-PF had the idea of a one-party state, and it does not see itself as separate from Zimbabwe,” he adds.

Gadzikwa says that as ZANU-PF has the advantage of incumbency, it controls how power is retained.

“Institutions like the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission are not likely to act in a way that would disadvantage those in power, who are the appointing authority,” he says, adding that having military support helped.

He cites the case of the late Edgar Tekere, who was the leader of the Zimbabwe Unity Movement and a freedom fighter before he was called a sell-out and ridiculed.

“ZANU-PF controls the media, public opinion and the rural areas through chiefs. It is easy for them to sustain power,” he adds.

Clinging to co-dependency

People are afraid to lose land or other benefits they get through ZANU-PF empowerment programmes if they do not vote for the party, Gadzikwa adds.

“The party uses empowerment programmes to manipulate and keep people in check. There is fear of violence and what rural communities have witnessed in past elections that were marred by intimidation. They end up voting for ZANU-PF to remain safe,” he says.

Gadzikwa points out that voter apathy in Zimbabwe benefits the ruling party.

“The party has vast resources like vehicles and finances to run elections, to the disadvantage of the money-strapped opposition,” Gadzikwa says. “Zimbabwe is a polarised society and there are some who choose not to see corruption as they benefit from ZANU-PF.”

Protecting accumulated wealth

The ruling party has been associated with greedy politicians and others that have been involved in the corrupt accumulation of wealth for more than four decades, says Nicholas Aribino, an academic and public-policy specialist.

“For individuals in ZANU-PF, being in power is a way of securing and protecting their ill-gotten wealth through rule by law,” says Aribino.

Zimbabwe is ranked 157 among 180 countries in the 2022 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.

“There has been the disappearance of $15bn diamond revenue that was highlighted by Mugabe before he died. The members of ZANU-PF acquired multiple farms during the 2000 Land Reform Programme, there is the gold mafia scandal, looting of farm equipment, and misuse of government resources amid poverty,” Aribino tells The Africa Report.

“That is what the ruling ZANU-PF elite are protecting through their prolonged stay in power,” he adds.

Weaponising the law

“The law has been used as a weapon of repression, and ZANU-PF has used its parliamentary advantage to pass oppressive legislation such as the Data Protection Act, a ruse for government to legally infiltrate citizens’ online spaces to crush dissent.

The Criminal Law Codification Amendment Bill, aka the ‘Patriotic Bill’, is invasive, while the Private Voluntary Organisation Amendment Bill to strictly regulate civic society are examples of legislation to crush dissent and keep ZANU-PF in power, said Aribino.

These laws have already had a negative effect on the lead-up to the election.

“Opposition party leaders like Zengeza West legislator Job Sikhala and Transform Zimbabwe leader Jacob Ngarivhume have been jailed to instil fear,” Aribino says.

Tendi says the 23 August election hinges on the integrity of the electoral commission, a credible voters’ roll, the absence of political violence and intimidation, and political parties’ access to the media, all factors which ZANU-PF has used to its advantage.

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