This Monday, July 30, Zimbabwe will hold its first presidential elections without the presence of Robert Mugabe since 1990. And yet, the system he forged for decades has largely survived his departure.
He even managed, sometimes with utmost subtlety, to continue to wield control over civil society and to guide the population before this crucial vote for the future of the country.
Besides the antics and controversies over the influence of his wife, not much remains of the old dictator. His jackets with unlikely patterns and colours have given way to the much more classic look of his successor, no doubt a toning down aimed to appease donors and potential investors. The political landscape has broadened to some extent, with the emergence of numerous political parties and no less than 23 candidates who are vying to be considered for the coveted post of the dethroned president. To start with, Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, will try to bolster his power with a legitimacy he still lacks since the military assisted change of government that brought him to power in November 2017.
We have to pay tribute to the new strong man of Harare for having kept his word to respect the Constitution by organising a “pluralist” election in only a few months and, at least in appearance, for having loosened the grip over Zimbabwean civil society. But appearances are sometimes misleading, and while organizations and human rights defenders now seem to work in a freer environment, the government is still cynical and mistrustful of them.
Since the military assisted change of government, the arbitrary arrests of defenders have not stopped, starting with those who dared to protest against the presumed involvement of President Mnangagwa in the Gukurahundi genocide in the 1980s. While the intimidation and harassment of independent journalists appears to have declined, new threats were recently made against those working for media outlets and accused of disseminating “false and harmful information”. The draconian laws passed under Robert Mugabe – and some others dating back to before the independence of Zimbabwe —have still not been repealed and are still used against activists, especially targeting all those who take a critical view towards Zanu-PF.
Robert Mugabe’s party-state system, where the government is entwined with Zanu-PF, is far from having disappeared and still counts on the army’s support. The state-run apparatus, previously composed of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and intelligence officers, is now in the control of the military, which serves as the main instrument of intimidation and harassment of opponents. According to civil society reports, between 2 000 and 5 000 soldiers are now deployed in the villages, officially in order to guarantee peace and security, to work on agricultural tasks or to deliver food to the population. But according to many observers, this presence mainly aims to intimidate and put pressure on communities to guide their votes.
These members of the army work closely with community leaders and veterans, who have considerable influence on the local population, to carry out voting instructions on behalf of the Zanu-PF. The militarisation of the countryside also results in a real intimidation of the villagers, who refuse to share their testimonies with human rights defenders fearing reprisals.
Nonetheless, Robert Mugabe does not support the candidacy of the party he created. His preference is apparently for veteran Ambrose Mutinhiri of the New Patriotic Front (NFP). However, Mugabe’s personal opinion no longer seems to count in the country he has so long been leading. Rather, “Mugabeism” continues to survive its creator, through the party he shaped and the person of Emmerson Mnangagwa, who for decades was Mugabe’s henchman before finally overthrowing him last year.
The July 30 vote is an opportunity to definitively turn the page on the system that has stifled Zimbabweans for nearly 40 years, to initiate a real democratic transition, to strengthen the rule of law and to protect human rights. We continue to believe that this hope will not be muffled.
Arnold Tsunga is a board Member of Zimbabwe Human Rights Association and a vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights.