The independent nation of Zimbabwe was ushered in after a protracted liberation war. Among some of its salient objectives, the war was fought to secure one man/woman one vote in a democratic society where people vote freely. As we commemorate Heroes’ Day this year, honouring the supreme sacrifice by all those who gave their lives for a free Zimbabwe, one cannot talk of the values of the liberation struggle without mentioning the centrality of the right to vote for every citizen as enshrined in Section 67 (3) (a) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. It is sad, indeed a tragedy that despite attaining 42 years of black majority rule, the country is still far from delivering anything resembling free, fair and credible elections to its citizens.
For as long as Zimbabwe has existed, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF), first under the late former President Robert Mugabe, undermined and ridiculed democratic processes, proclaiming quite ironically, that the pen (meaning a vote) could never be mightier than the bullet that brought Zimbabwe’s independence. Right from the very beginning, ZANU PF was not amused by the challenge to its entitled politics and attempted to crush the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) in the early 1980s to ensure that the one man/woman one vote principle would ever only exist on the ballot. Mugabe used Zimbabwe’s security apparatus, including the military, the police, the Central Intelligence Organisation and even the prison service, to unleash violence against his perceived opponents and also to threaten a coup in the event of the opposition winning the elections, a trend that has continued under President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Stolen elections and perennially contested outcomes
Elections and their conduct in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, have been a source of great conflict, and are widely seen as a key source of the ‘legitimacy question’ that has continued to plague the incumbent ZANU PF government after each successive election. The trend has certainly worsened from the year 2000 onwards with the apparent intensification of popular opposition to the liberation war party’s rule. Since as far back as 2002, various regionally sanctioned reports, including the Khampepe and Motlanthe Reports, successive SADC Election Observer Mission (SEOM) reports (notably 2008, 2013 and 2018) among others, have persistently flagged numerous shortcomings in the governance architecture and processes supporting the holding of elections in Zimbabwe.
The SADC mediated Global Political Agreement (GPA) of 2008 which precipitated the government of national unity (GNU) in 2009 had a clear thrust on the implementation of widespread reforms in response to the structural limitations to credible elections. However, the reality is that after each successive election, these recommendations towards reforms have been persistently repelled or simply ignored by the government of Zimbabwe, with the military being at the centre of the transfer of power debacle. On 13 January 2002, the military generals came out clearly to remove any doubt when declaring their support for Mugabe and ZANU PF and nothing else.
Militarism and Elections after Mugabe: New wine in old bottlesFollowing the November 2017 military coup in Zimbabwe, which deposed Mugabe after 37 years in power, many expected that the country would finally breakaway from the authoritarian politics of the past. This was buttressed by the incoming President Mnangagwa’s admission during his inauguration speech on the need to “give our nation a different, positive direction.” On the contrary, the governance practices of the so-called ‘Second Republic’ have delivered nothing near a different or positive direction. In fact, from the competitive authoritarian slant of the Mugabe era, the Mnangagwa presidency has seen increasing authoritarian consolidation, with the military at the core of gross human rights violations. By brazenly involving itself in politics, let alone aligning itself with a political party, the military continues to violate a number of constitutional provisions that prohibit the involvement of the security services in politics, including the right to liberty, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and the right to security and freedom from torture. This has adversely affected the ability of citizens to vote freely.
The involvement of the defense forces in civilian affairs remains a key obstacle to any progress towards an effective democracy in general and a credible election regime. The Zimbabwe state completely adopted the Rhodesian security posture, which criminalised freedom fighters as individuals and the fight for democracy as a principle. This has thus led to a situation whereby Zimbabwean soldiers are actually better known in civilian circles than in securing the borders and territorial integrity of the country. This has been the vital cog that has made Zimbabwe tragically lean more towards regime security instead of human security.
Unless soldiers stay in the barracks and stick to their constitutional mandate to defend the territorial integrity of the country, then the dream of one man/woman one vote will be ‘deferred.’An engaged citizenry is a weapon against electoral theft
The key question has to be: How can this be addressed? Answers to this question may vary but it can be argued that the population, especially the young people of Zimbabwe need to take it upon themselves to save their future. Zimbabwe has been going downhill for decades politically and economically and this cannot continue.
Because Zimbabwe is a constitutional democracy, it is important that citizens act towards a Zimbabwe that can hold free and fair elections that are also constitutional and peaceful. To make elections count, to make them be a true reflection of the will of the people, participation in them by all eligible voters should be a minimum requirement. This however cannot be an end in itself as history has shown. Rather, Zimbabweans should not only vote, but more crucially, protect their vote. This will ensure that the voice of the citizens is heard beyond the ballot box. Without securing and defending the vote, elections will never play their crucial role of being the medium through which citizens exercise their freedom to make political choices. Defending the vote means by all means necessary, ensuring that the true expression of the will of the people prevails. It was the young people who prosecuted the liberation struggle in the late 1960s to 1980. Today’s young people ought to, likewise, embrace their generational mandate and obligation. The total involvement of voters in the whole electoral cycle is a minimum requirement towards a more meaningful electoral regime.
Tatenda Mazarura-Mhike is a Human Rights Defender, a professional rapporteur, an election specialist and a Regional Information and Advocacy Officer at Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition.