Zimbabwe: A reply to Nic Cheeseman’s column on democracy

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa
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This letter is a response to a recent opinion column entitled: “When Zimbabwe stops pretending to be a democracy” published on 23 January 2023.

By Miles Tendi

It is April 1983. Hilary Squires, a Zimbabwean High Court Judge has just pronounced Dumiso Dabengwa, a leading intelligence figure in ZAPU, the rival liberation party to ZANU PF, as not guilty of a treason charge made against him by Robert Mugabe’s government.

Within minutes of Squires’ not guilty verdict, Dabengwa is rearrested under the colonial-era Emergency Powers Act. The innocent Dabengwa pines away in jail for the next three years. Fast-forward to 2023: opposition CCC politician Job Sikhala has been detained without trial for approximately seven months.

According to Nic Cheeseman, in a recent article on authoritarianism in Zimbabwe, Sikhala’s continued detention is representative of a “trend, in which the law has been turned into a political weapon to detain and exhaust government critics”.

Cheeseman is correct that ZANU PF is using the law as a political stick against domestic critics but this is hardly a recent trend, as Dabengwa’s early 1980s experience shows.

Failure to ‘fully grasp the history of political violence’

Cheeseman also fails to fully grasp the history of political violence in Zimbabwe. For example, he asserts that ‘the use of force arguably peaked during the 2008 presidential elections’. Yet research by Jocelyn Alexander, JoAnn McGregor and Terence RangerStuart Doran and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace shows that the peak of political violence in Zimbabwe is the 1980s Gukurahundi and in the 1985 election, which targeted ZAPU and its supporters.

Cheeseman tells us that ahead of Zimbabwe’s “general elections later this year, the [ZANU PF] government is reverting to its old ways. Behind in the polls, with limited support even within his own party and out of ideas, President Emmerson Mnangagwa knows that only intimidation and electoral manipulation will keep him in power“, Cheeseman concludes. In actuality, ZANU PF and Mnangagwa have not ‘reverted’ to ‘old ways’.

Instead, ZANU PF’s current behaviour is remarkably consistent with how it has approached elections since the 1980 independence poll. As Norma Kriger demonstrates, “despite their profoundly different contexts” Zimbabwean elections between 1980 and 2000 “expose startling similarities” in ZANU PF’s “discourse and coercive mechanisms”. ZANU PF cast critics and rivals as enemies of the state and “puppets” of the West and whites.

ZANU PF consistently employed violence and intimidation around elections, even as it appealed for peace, political reconciliation and free and fair elections.

Relatedly, Sara Rich Dorman emphasises that from the early 1980s, ZANU PF politicised “institutions responsible for conducting elections”. ZANU PF used the Registrar General and the Elections Directorate, which managed elections before the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) took over this role in 2005, to control the election process, gerrymander constituency boundaries and manipulate the voters’ roll.

ZEC’s presently contentious handling of delimitation voter population figures and the voters’ roll are consistent with how politicised election management bodies have administered elections since the 1980s. The powerful institutional obstructions to genuine multi-party electoral democracy that Jonathan Moyo identified in his analysis of Zimbabwe’s 1990 elections are as relevant today as they were three decades ago.

Not reverting to old ways, but…

If, as I argue, ZANU PF has not “reverted” to “old ways” but is simply laying the ground for an election victory in ways consistent with practices since the 1980s, an important focal point for debate should be why Zimbabwean opposition parties have struggled to effectively counter the ruling party’s formulaic electoral strategies.

Cheeseman pays no attention to this critical point, preferring to write in a highly enthusiastic and effusive way about “a rise in support for the main opposition leader Nelson Chamisa and CCC” and how “the opposition has largely reunited behind” Chamisa.

The actual extent of opposition unity will only become evident during and after its internal primary elections and, should CCC lose to ZANU PF, in the aftermath of the 2023 election results.

Another significant unknown about the opposition is whether it has used the five years since the last election to accumulate resources that would enable it to run a competitive election campaign in 2023. As per usual, owing to the advantages of incumbency, ZANU PF will have a considerable largesse for its campaign.

There is also a lack of clarity on whether the opposition has trained up or is training loyal and competent polling agents to represent it in all polling stations, so as to prevent possible rigging. Failure to assign agents to all polling stations cost the opposition in the 2018 election.

Why, six months before the election, has the opposition still not put forward well-defined, compelling turnaround policies for socioeconomic development? Has the opposition done enough to mobilise a pivotal number of new voters to register to vote in the upcoming election?

‘Narrow prism of ruling party rigging’

Tinashe Mawere points out that in the 2018 election Chamisa “depicted the absence of national direction and progress in terms of Mnangagwa’s lack of sexual virility and an incapacity to reproduce” and he offered to “hand over his young sister to Mnangagwa if Mnangagwa won the elections”.

In the run-up to the 2023 election, is the opposition more effectively appealing to women voters and will women get equal opportunity to stand as party candidates in the election?

ZANU PF’s election victories cannot be fully understood if we rely on Cheeseman’s narrow prism of ruling party rigging. ZANU PF’s skulduggery in elections and its repression of and violence towards opposition elements are as real today as they have been since the 1980s.

They make the operating environment for opposition forces particularly challenging indeed, but there is still much that the opposition can do for itself that it struggles to accomplish on its own terms, thereby facilitating ZANU PF’s retention of power.

In the 2018 election the opposition overly fixated on Chamisa winning the presidency, neglecting the need to heal party divisions created by the controversial selection process of candidates in the parliamentary election and the lack of resources to support the respective campaigns of opposition parliamentary candidates.

A consequence of this is that Chamisa narrowly lost to ZANU PF’s candidate Mnangagwa in the presidential election, outperforming his party’s candidates in the parliamentary poll. From the 210 contested parliamentary seats, ZANU PF won 144 and Chamisa’s party 64.

Had the opposition performed better in the 2018 parliamentary election, it would have been able to block the passing of the Private Voluntary Act (PVO) and Cyber and Data Protection Act, which Cheeseman contends have “curtailed what few civil liberties Zimbabweans had left”.

ZANU PF’s hold on power

It remains to be seen if Chamisa’s leadership has put in place robust party structures and an election plan that will ensure a vastly improved performance in the 2023 parliamentary election. Failure to do this will hand ZANU PF another strong majority in parliament, allowing it to push through more repressive legislation in the next five years.

In addition to the failings of opposition parties, ZANU PF has maintained its hold on power during and outside elections because of the duplicitous, counterproductive and self-interested interventions of Western actors since the 1980s.

In my book Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, I illustrate how the West’s fervent concern for the plight of beleaguered white commercial farmers during the post-2000 land seizures allowed ZANU PF to cast elections in 2000, 2002 and 2005 as a struggle against domestic opposition sponsored by the West to achieve regime change in Zimbabwe and end the takeover of white-owned farms.

ZANU PF’s narrative, called “patriotic history”, won its supporters in sections of Zimbabwe and Africa. External actors turned a blind eye to the 1980s Gukurahundi and violence in the 1985 election with Britain, as Hazel Cameron puts it, engaging in “a series of deliberate acts in the furtherance of the political interests” of ZANU PF.

More recently, following Zimbabwe’s 2017 military coup, no Western democracy or African state publicly called what was a coup a coup and attempted to undo the coup.

Cheeseman does not mention the 2017 coup and its effects in his article.

External actors bear partial responsibility for enduring authoritarianism in Zimbabwe. Despite this, Cheeseman still sees a constructive role for “the international community” – a euphemism for Western states – in Zimbabwean politics.

Western states must not give “a dysfunctional and abusive government a veneer of respectability that it does not deserve” and it must be “clear that an election held under these [rigged] circumstances is not an election”, Cheeseman advocates. This is flawed advocacy.

This was first published here by the Africa Report.