Big Saturday Read: The problem of political violence
There was a huge wave of reaction from Zimbabweans on social media when President Mnangagwa was quoted by The Economist, the British weekly newspaper, denying that the 2008 elections were violent. “It was fair, very fair” Mnangagwa was quoted as saying. “Where is the evidence of violence? Not a single case was taken to the police,” he added dismissively.
Many were appalled by these statements denying the violence suffered by mainly opposition supporters particularly during the run-up to the presidential run-off election in 2008. Under the hashtag #Remembering2008 victims, survivors and witnesses told their stories, reminding President Mnangagwa that he was wrong to deny and trivialize their pain and suffering. They were sad and painful accounts which captured the huge emotional burden that weighs upon the nation.
However, the statements of denial are not an accident. They reveal the attitude of the new administration towards political violence and its victims and survivors. Since the coup in November 2017, the administration has tried to present a soft, reformist and progressive face in matters relating to politics and the economy. For the most part, Mnangagwa has been good with words, pushing a charm offensive both domestically and internationally. He has even been magnanimous and tolerant towards the traditional opposition. Indeed, some of the reaction domestically and internationally suggests that many have already taken the bait.
Nevertheless, some have been more cautious, believing there is more that lies beneath the facade so far presented. They will now point to the blatant denial of political violence in 2008 as the moment when the facade gave way and the true character of the new leader and his administration was revealed.
In truth though, Mnangagwa has generally been uncomfortable with questions about past atrocities. He has been less willing to confront the problems of the past, preferring to urge citizens to “let bygones be bygones” and to look to the future, instead of the past. He was flying high when he made his maiden trip to Davos for the WEF in January, but he bristled at the mention of the 1980s Gukurahundi atrocities. The persistent questioning nearly pushed him to lose his balance during one interview. Previously, he had an easier ride with The Financial Times newspaper, in an interview just before the Davos trip. It read more like a public relations exercise than a serious inquisition to understand the new leader.
With The Economist, he had dropped his guard. Denying political violence and describing the farcical 2008 elections as "very free and fair" was reckless and damaging. When one line overshadows the entire story, it's a disaster. He had no reason to deny what the whole world knows. It cost him credibility and embarrassed those in the international community who have been doing their best to promote his administration and its prospects.
It is simply not true that the 2008 election was “very fair” or that it was non-violent. As a matter of fact, it is the one election since independence which was so flawed that not even friends of Mugabe and ZANU PF could tick the boxes as they had done in previous elections. It is one election that required external intervention to settle the multiple disputes around it. Zimbabwe ended up with a patched-up coalition government precisely because the election was a farce and that was largely because of the political violence which was unleashed on opposition supporters.
In fact, the violence was so bad that the winner of the first round of elections, Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew in protest just a few days before the run-off election was due to be held. The preamble to the Global Political Agreement under which the coalition government was formed actually acknowledged the violence. Human rights organizations chronicled the violence and the records are available. That same year, the then President, Robert Mugabe issued a Clemency Order in order to protect perpetrators of political violence. It would not have been necessary unless there was violence in 2008. It is therefore factually incorrect for President Mnangagwa to claim that there was no violence in the 2008 election or that the election was “very free and fair”.
However, the denialism is symptomatic of a bigger problem. Those who form the current administration were part of the Mugabe administration, which was responsible for the political violence in 2008. Perhaps some of them were directly responsible for the events in 2008. It has been alleged that the military had a big hand in the operation designed to keep Mugabe in power and prevent Tsvangirai from winning power. It is unsurprising that they refuse to take responsibility for the political violence because it also happened under their watch.
It also shows that despite pretensions to the contrary, the new administration is hardly different from its predecessor. The Mugabe administration did not have any regard for victims and survivors of political violence. In fact, the record shows that after every period of serious political violence, Mugabe issued a Clemency Order under the presidential prerogative of mercy. These clemency orders were used to protect perpetrators of political violence from criminal prosecution or lawsuits. As explained in a previous BSR, this practice of providing immunity to perpetrators of violence, which was inherited from the colonial state, encouraged impunity and political violence. Mnangagwa has not issued a Clemency Order like Mugabe but his denial of political violence in 2008 sends a message to perpetrators that violence is acceptable and if it ever happened, the new administration would simply turn a blind eye and say it never happened.
The president’s dismissal of violence in 2008 and the declaration that the election was free and fair also has important implications for the next elections. He has repeatedly promised that they will be free and fair and he has spoken out against violence, which many gave him credit for. But all this is undone by his reckless statement denying violence during the 2008 elections. Such a statement coming from the president can easily be interpreted by the electorate as an endorsement of violence. It suggests that what happened in 2008 was normal. Already people are speculating that if the president says 2008 was free and fair and non-violent, this means the 2018 elections will also be violent. The ZANU PF political commissar, also of military extraction, has previously been quoted as warning the electorate o a repeat of 2008. It only strengthens the message when the president denies political violence. This surely can’t be the message that Mnangagwa wants to send to the world when he has been at pains to build some credibility.
Many of the victims and survivors of political violence still live in the same communities alongside perpetrators of political violence in 2008. They have never been prosecuted. The president’s denial of violence suggests to perpetrators and victims and survivors that violence is acceptable. It encourages and emboldens perpetrators while cowering survivors and victims into submission.
Mnangagwa has to understand that as president, every word he utters has far-reaching consequences. Everything he says is watched and scrutinized because it represents the government. The 2008 elections were extremely violent and damaging. They were not free and fair hence the external mediation and the shaky coalition government that emerged after intense negotiations. It is unwise to deny this fact. It does not matter where he speaks. These days, word travels very fast and even if it is spoken to newspapers in far-off lands, it will always be felt at home. These denials of political violence will probably cost him some of the goodwill he had earned since the coup last November.
The denial of political violence in 2008 is consistent with the new administration’s approach towards Gukurahundi victims and survivors. The attitude has been to forget and move on, regarding the atrocities as “bygones”. This has revived deep-seated resentment in the affected regions in Matebeleland and the Midlands where the 1980s atrocities occurred. What hope is there for the national healing process under the authority of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission when the president denies the existence of violence? What hope is there that Gukurahundi will be acknowledged and dealt with when more recent atrocities are denied?
Problems next door
The MDC's response to the outrageous statements denying violence in the 2008 elections has been intriguingly lukewarm. It took some time before the leading lights of the party came out publicly to condemn Mnangagwa’s denial of political violence in 2008. It is hard to see why it did not receive the attention it deserved. It may be that the leaders have been pre-occupied with their own internal issues, which ironically include incidents of political violence, but it sends a wrong message to their supporters when they don’t react swiftly and decisively to ruling party statements that deny political violence and disrespect victims and survivors.
It matters because many of those who suffered were supporters of the MDC. They suffered in the name of the party. When they don’t see or hear their leaders challenging Mnangagwa’s outrageous statements, they worry that they too are taking them for granted. There are already a number of victims and survivors who, disappointed by the lack of support and even acknowledgement from their party, have completely switched off politics. They don't want to hear anything about politics. Some lost loved ones. Others lost limbs and many lost property or jobs. There have been complaints in the past that the party has forgotten those who suffered, including families of cadres who died for the cause. The least they deserve is protection from their party when their pain is trivialised by its authors. The party ought to do more, even symbolically, to acknowledge and honour those who have died for the cause. It is respectful to do so but it also sends a positive message to current supporters that the party remembers its fallen cadres.
It is important, on this note to also point out that the bug of political violence is also a problem in the MDC. Mnangagwa’s denials of political violence are appalling, but the MDC has a problem of political violence in its ranks, too. The first part of solving a problem is acknowledging and accepting its existence. In order to solve the problem of political violence, the MDC leadership must accept that it exists. The scenes witnessed in Buhera at the funeral of founding leader Morgan Tsvangirai were appalling and disrespectful. The alleged threats to burn a hut in which deputy leader Thoko Khupe and others had taken refuge were a mark of barbaric behavior. This was not the first time that violence had affected the party, nor was it the last. There have been many incidences in the past and it’s a serious problem that has been allowed to grow over the years.
The reason why this recurs is that violence has been normalized and perpetrators are not punished. Just like Mugabe’s clemency orders give incentives for more violence, the lack of punishment of perpetrators of violence in the MDC encourages more violence in the party. The MDC loses the moral authority to condemn ZANU PF for perpetrating violence against its supporters when it fails to rein in perpetrators of violence within the party. In fact, right now, if Mnangagwa had not made his reckless statements over the 2008 election violence, the MDC would be the party that is currently associated with political violence because of what has been happening in its ranks.
To deal with the problem effectively, the party must identify and punish offenders and sponsors of political violence. In this regard, the MDC leadership must seriously consider disbanding the militia-lite group which is referred to as the Vanguard. It’s difficult to justify its necessity in light of potential consequences of its existence. Many vile dictatorships have been known to manipulate youths to do their political bidding. It was ZANU PF that maintained a youth militia which wrecked havoc during elections. It is ridiculous that the MDC should mirror its opponent in ways that it has always condemned. The MDC has no business being associated with a unit of that type. The leadership has to take responsibility for the unit because things done in its name or associated with it will ultimately be placed on their doorstep. It will be very difficult for them to deny responsibility.
In conclusion, the problem of political violence is a collective problem that demands a broad-based solution. It was wrong for President Mnangagwa to deny political violence in 2008 elections. He has done harm to whatever credibility he was building by making such reckless denials. His international allies who were openly warming up to him must be embarrassed by the outrageous statements. But its a good reminder to them, too not to be overzealous.
The political violence that has rocked the MDC in recent weeks is deplorable and must be condemned and dealt with decisively. The problem of violence is deep-seated and is reflective of a society in which physical force is considered an acceptable tool for disciplining and resolving disputes. As long as individuals see it as acceptable to beat up another person by way of discipline or as a way to deal with conflict, the problem of violence is likely to be with us for a long time. Many people see it as normal to beat up a person because they have a different view. It is not surprising that political groups think it is acceptable to beat up opponents, particularly when their leaders condone it or fail to punish offenders.
The 2008 political violence was widespread and the #Rememberring2008 hashtag on Twitter carried many of these painful stories. But there are more untold stories out there. The recurring violence in the opposition circles shows that the problem knows no political colours. Leaders must acknowledge the existence of this problem and take decisive measures to uproot it.