On Aug. 1, Zimbabwean army soldiers fired live ammunition at unarmed civilians protesting the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s failure to announce the outcome of the country’s July 30 presidential election in a timely fashion. The protesters suspected that the commission’s procrastination was a ploy to rig the result in favor of incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power in a military coup that ousted longtime strongman Robert Mugabe in November 2017.
By Blessing Miles-Tendi
As it turned out, when the results were finally announced more than three days after polls closed, Mnangagwa, the leader of the ruling Zanu-PF party, prevailed in the election, narrowly avoiding a runoff vote by less than 1 percent. Mnangagwa’s main challenger, Nelson Chamisa of the opposition MDC Alliance, won 44 percent of the ballots cast.
At least six civilians have been confirmed dead in last week’s shootings. The police have arrested dozens of opposition politicians and activists on charges that they incited public violence on Aug. 1, and the authorities are still searching for others.
“The police have arrested dozens of opposition politicians and activists on charges that they incited public violence on Aug. 1, and the authorities are still searching for others.”
There are also ongoing reports of soldiers beating and abducting civilians in the suburbs surrounding the country’s capital, Harare—a hotbed of opposition politics.
Despite all this, the army has denied any involvement in the violent crackdown, arguing that, “If there are any individuals masquerading as our members committing crime, these might be criminals bent on tarnishing the image of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces.”
In addition to the army’s denialism, another misguided narrative has emerged abroad, seeking to absolve Mnangagwa of responsibility while blaming the army’s activities on Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, who was the commander of the military during the November 2017 coup against Mugabe. For example, Joseph Cotterill, writing in the Financial Times, argues that the “brutality bears hallmarks” of Chiwenga and suggests there is a split in government between supposed hard-line military men such as Chiwenga and moderates such as Mnangagwa.
Kate Hoey, the chair of Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Zimbabwe, seems to have accepted this theory, too. She declared, “there should be no change to [European Union] or [U.K.] or American government policies to Zimbabwe government until at the very minimum Chiwenga is removed from his vice presidency and his control of the military.”
Both arguments reveal a simplistic understanding of Zimbabwe’s history. The claim that rogue soldiers or citizens impersonating soldiers are responsible for the violent crackdown on the opposition ignores decades of political violence overseen by the ruling Zanu-PF party, of which Mnangagwa was an integral part.
Indeed, political violence has traditionally been a tool employed by Zanu-PF to deal with both internal and external opposition. The party has used security services, war veterans, and youth militias to conduct violent political campaigns on various occasions since the country’s independence in 1980.
It waged the brutal Gukurahundi massacres against supporters of the opposition Zimbabwe African People’s Union party in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces during the mid-1980s, killing thousands of people. In January 1998, Zanu-PF used violence to stamp out urban food riots; it cracked down on black farmworkers during the seizure of white-owned commercial farms beginning in 2000; and the government used force against the political opposition in the June 2008 presidential runoff campaign.
A key characteristic that cuts across all these violent crackdowns is the centralized control of violence. Political violence in Zimbabwe is rarely random. It is calculated and tightly controlled from the center, under the president and commander in chief’s authority.
“Political violence in Zimbabwe is rarely random. It is calculated and tightly controlled from the center, under the president and commander in chief’s authority.”
The current situation is no different. There is presently no compelling evidence demonstrating a breakdown of the chain of command. Mnangagwa is therefore not a powerless president besieged by Zanu-PF and military hard-liners advocating the use of political violence. Despite his measured words in public statements, he is in fact central to the planning and authorization of the violent suppression of the opposition currently occurring in Zimbabwe.
Likewise, those who today blame postelection violence on Vice President Chiwenga are unwittingly repeating the error of those who held Mugabe alone responsible for Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis, which began in the late 1990s. Just as Mugabe was then demonized, and the entire Zimbabwe crisis was laid at his doorstep, we are now witnessing the demonization of Chiwenga and the narrow personalization of Zimbabwe’s postelection political difficulties.
This article was first published by The Foreign Policy