The National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG) held a three-day symposium in Bulawayo that ended on Friday to set the tone for transitional justice in the country. The symposium was attended by National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) chairperson Justice Sello Nare. Our chief reporter Everson Mushava (EM) had an exclusive interview with NTJWG chairman Alec Muchadehama (AM) on Zimbabwe’s transitional justice mechanisms and government’s commitment to the cause. Muchadehama said the symposium held, under the theme “Never Again — Setting the Transitional Justice Agenda in Zimbabwe”, was an invitation to the people of Zimbabwe to take some time, step back and reflect on how best to finally bring an end to violence and set the country on a genuinely new trajectory. Below are excerpts from the interview.
EM: What is the significance of the symposium being held in Bulawayo?
AM: It is that place of warmth, a place that is home to many Zimbabweans — the victims of many past and continuing atrocities — a place of untold suffering. With this richness, Bulawayo has become the birthplace of a national “Never Again” movement.
EM: Are you seeing any positive results from your 10 years of advocacy for transitional justice in Zimbabwe?
AM: We have to acknowledge that our context is very complex. This is a country where fear rules the day and the message of transitional justice is not so palatable for our government. There are temptations to tone down on principle to get government buy-in. This is because the government houses many perpetrators of human rights abuse and these are people with power. For them, they understand the message of transitional justice to mean prosecution, International Criminal Court and things like that, but transitional justice is not about individuals or witch-hunting.
EM: The government set up the NPRC to lay the foundation for transitional justice processes. What is your assessment of the commission’s commitment to transitional justice so far?
AM: There are a number of issues that we are worried about regarding the commission. The commission is still to assert its independence from the executive and this is proving to be difficult each day as the executive is visibly seen to be interfering with the work of the commission, especially through resource starvation. This is why it has been difficult for the commission to build its own capacity, infrastructure and independent secretariat.
We also see reluctance in the commission’s strategic plan to tackle hard transitional justice issues like justice and accountability, but rather preferring to pitch themselves as more of only a peace-building outfit.
We, however, acknowledge the vigilance of some commissioners who have, with minimum resources, gone out of their way to confront some merchants of violence in areas like Mount Darwin and others. We also note the goodwill of the commission in engaging civil society. When Zenzele Ndebele launched his (Gukurahundi) documentary here in Bulawayo, it was the NPRC that stood up and supported the initiative even when the state wanted to interfere with that process. There is great potential in the NPRC, if only the executive could get out of their way and let them have their own independent secretariat and independent offices to do what the constitution requires them to do.
EM: You started your campaign for transitional justice during Robert Mugabe’s administration and now we are under the new leadership of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Is there any difference between the two in handling transitional justice?
AM: We were pleased that the new administration quickly signed into law the NPRC Act, which operationalised the NPRC. We were pleased when the president appointed a seasoned peace-builder, Clever Nyathi, as an advisor. These were good gestures. We were, however, deeply saddened with the August 1 killing of civilians by soldiers. We were saddened when the president evaded responsibility as this began to feel like the same old regime. We are very saddened with the way the [Kgalema] Motlanthe Commission has done its work, especially the failure to protect victims here in Bulawayo. We are not happy that government seems to be undermining independent commissions.
EM: Do you think a commission of inquiry is the best way of establishing the truth and achieving justice for the victims?
AM: There is no one way of establishing the truth and it is not up to us to choose for government. But we can, as a matter of principle, see problems with that step. As soon as that commission was established, we issued a guidance note. There were issues: the mandate of the commission was flawed. In principle, appointing a commission of inquiry to do the work which another constitutional commission is mandated to do is undermining such an institution. We would be happier with this investigation being done by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission or the NPRC.
EM: What do you think are the shortfalls of Mnangagwa’s approach considering the testimonies that have been given so far by civilians, doctors as well as the security establishment?
AM: The Motlanthe Commission appears more like a public relations job than a real investigation into human rights violations. Out of the more than 30 cases submitted by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, only three have been invited. In Gweru, witnesses were brought in from as far as Chiundura. The secretariat of the commission is from the Ministry of Justice. There is no criterion on how evidence is collected. These are serious shortfalls.
EM: What do you mean by saying the appointment of the commission is a mere public relations stunt?
AM: There is no science to this. There are domestic institutions that are mandated to carry out such investigations. Abandoning such institutions and opting for foreigners says a lot about building local capacity for accountability. International principles of institutional reform require that we invest in building local capacity before we reach out. It then appears like the government is more worried about its international image than care for its people. We had reservations about the commission from the start.
We did not agree that this is the way to go. Some people went to court and the court found otherwise. The commander-in-chief is the president who appointed the same commission. When you appoint such a commission, there should be no controversy around it and how it is supposed to carry out its work and how it is going to carry out its investigations. Right now, there is no criteria used to decide whom to invite for questioning.
Some of the people they are calling are not stating facts, but opinions and half-truths, some of them coming to comment and tell outright lies.
EM: So with the many shortfalls you have noted, do you think the outcome of the commission’s report would be credible?
AM: There are places where commissions operate under very difficult conditions and they still manage to defeat the forces of adversity. The credibility of the outcome is based on adherence to principles of victim-centredness. Issues of ensuring effective remedy for victims come in. However, the commission cannot run away from the credibility of the process because these are also outcomes. Like the fact that people were victimised in Bulawayo and the commission did nothing to protect them. In short, we need to look at the whole picture, not just the report. The commission’s work is clashing with what the police are doing.
I know police arrested over 40 people, mainly MDC activists, for alleged violence, but police have not arrested any police officer or army personnel who participated, especially the people who shot, they are known. The suspicion is there, the commission is there to cover up criminal acts done in broad daylight. There was no need for a commission; the police could have done the investigations with the help of commissions such as the NPRC.
The police have dealt with worse violence. The police have the capacity to trace the weapon to know where it came from, therefore who used it. There is an attempt to gloss over the events.