Zimbabwe, Hope

Hope tempered with well-founded caution in Zimbabwe

As Zimbabwe’s next president, Emmerson Mnangagwa will need to make genuine efforts to restore the trust of a population emerging from the Mugabe era, writes Grainne Kilcullen, Governance and Human Rights Advisor.



My most recent visit to Zimbabwe was in May 2018, just six months after Robert Mugabe had been forced from power. I found hope and excitement on the streets of Harare as people began to exercise a new-found freedom to speak their minds and criticise the events of the past. But their hope was tempered with caution. And that caution was well founded.

Although Monday’s presidential and parliamentary elections were largely peaceful, tensions spilled over into violence when the parliamentary results suggested that Zanu-PF had won the majority of seats. Six people were killed and many others were beaten and injured by soldiers using live fire and excessive force against civilian protestors.

The opposition MDC Alliance believes that Zanu-PF rigged the election. And external election observers, including the EU, have expressed doubts about the fairness of the presidential and parliamentary contests. Nevertheless, the Zimbabwean Election Commission announced Emmerson Mnangagwa, leader of Zanu-PF as the next president.

History of fear and doubt

Zanu-PF has been the ruling party in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 with Robert Mugabe maintaining a tight grip on power for 37 years. The Mugabe era was characterised by a devastating decline of the economy, the persistent use of violence and widespread corruption. Human rights violations spanning decades have spawned a deep-rooted anger and frustration with the political system, and inter and intra party violence has infected many aspects of daily life: access to essential services; the availability of currency; security of property and land; and participation in public life.

Political violence has also contributed to ethnic tensions between the Ndebele people of southern Zimbabwe and the majority Shona-speaking people of the north. The Ndebele people have historically felt isolated and discriminated against compared to the Shona people who have dominated politics and government since independence. Among the darkest chapters of Zimbabwe’s history were the Matabeleland massacres, carried out between 1983 and 1987, in which approximately 20,000 people (mostly Ndebele) were killed, and thousands more were detained, tortured and sent to re-education camps. The brutal crackdown was led by Zanu-PF under the leadership of Robert Mugabe in an effort to eradicate support for his then rival, Joshua Nkomo.

There was no reprieve in the years that followed with the introduction of a controversial land reform in which 3000 farms were seized from white landowners and handed over to thousands of black Zimbabweans. This program, which came in the midst of widespread social unrest and protests over rising food prices, provoked protests in Harare and extensive violence against the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

Subsequent elections were marred with violence. In 2005, whole communities were demolished in the name of slum clearance but which the opposition party believed to be the deliberate persecution of their supporters. And in 2008, elections saw widespread incidence of politically motivated rape, murder, abductions, kidnappings, assaults, disappearances and displacement. Zimbabweans were denied any freedom of expression or association. And poverty, economic collapse and a large cholera outbreak added to their suffering. Although the power sharing agreement made after the 2008 elections between Zanu-PF and MDC aimed to restore some trust, this was quickly quashed in 2013 when Zanu-PF seized power amid allegations of election fraud, changing the constitution to allow Mugabe to stay in power until 2023.

That is why in 2017, after decades of one-party and one-leader rule, the streets of Harare erupted into celebration with the prospect of a new leader and a new future for Zimbabwe.

Cautious optimism

Generally referred to as ‘the transition’, the bloodless military coup of November 2017 offered the potential for regime change and provided a stark reminder of the power of the army to determine the direction of the country. The subsequent endorsement of Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s confidante for more than 30 years, left people with mixed emotions. Known as the ‘crocodile’ for his political shrewdness, his role in the Matabeleland Massacres and the continued role of the army in maintaining the status quo clouded people’s hopes for open democracy, national reconciliation and accountability for past abuses. The events of this week show why that caution was justified.

This election offered the prospect of a new dawn in Zimbabwe but with intimidation and distrust in the process, it is not surprising that the anger of civilians has spilled onto the streets. And it is not surprising that the army, given its role in previous abuses, has been quick to use brutal measures to quell the unrest. Regardless of where the blame lies, resorting to violence to solve political grievances is not the answer.

Democracy and national reconciliation

The election results were very tight, with 50.8% to Mnangagwa and 44.3% to Nelson Chamisa of MDC so Mnangagwa will need to remain humble in his leadership and make genuine efforts to restore the trust of the population. MDC are accusing their opponents of rigging the election. During the pre-election period, external EU observers reported an ‘un-level playing field’ citing intimidation of voters, media bias and lack of transparency by the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission. This does not make for a promising platform on which Mnangagwa can build his presidency.

In the coming days we urge the parties and the army to commit to peace. If the opposition is planning to challenge the results, they must do so in accordance with the rule of law. Zimbabwe has a long way to go to reach its full potential as an economic and democratic pillar of Africa. Christian Aid is playing its part, supporting local civil society to reduce political violence and build peace. But the government must be prepared to address the abuses of the past and ensure they do not infect efforts to rebuild the country politically and economically. Ireland and the international community, including the African Union, the United Nations and the EU, must continue to support efforts for peace, truth and reconciliation in Zimbabwe. Without such national initiatives, the violence of the past will continue, dampening progress towards peace, democracy and prosperity.

Published in the Irish Examiner, 8th August 2018.