Big Saturday Read: red flags in the general election
It is often said that history repeats itself. Others caution that if we do not listen to the lessons of history, we are bound to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Many lament that humankind has failed to draw lessons from history and hence old mistakes have been repeated countless times. As Zimbabwe approaches elections, it’s important to look back at previous elections and draw lessons from them.
The single biggest shortcoming of elections in the past two decades is a crisis of legitimacy. Both the process and outcome of the elections have been seriously contested and doubted. This lack of credibility has affected the legitimacy of the governments that have followed elections. It was so bad in 2008 that the only cure was a hastily patched-up coalition government which brought three parties together. That make-shift arrangement was the remedy for the crisis of legitimacy following a violent and farcical election.
The 2013 election was less violent than the preceding election but that is because ZANU PF had learned that open violence would discredit the election. They chose instead to create a façade of peacefulness while engaging in strategies that still undermined the credibility of the elections. The result was that although Mugabe and ZANU PF were declared winners, the process and outcome were discredited and the legitimacy continued to be elusive. The legitimacy deficit has been a huge albatross on the government since 2013.
This is why the Mnangagwa administration, which took over following the coup last November, has been keen to secure legitimacy. But while the message of peaceful, free and fair elections is to be welcomed, caution must be exercised that it is not yet another façade like in 2013 because the outcome would be the same.
The involvement of the military in the election will affect the legitimacy of the election. The military became very popular during and in the immediate aftermath of the coup which toppled Mugabe. This did not mean that Zimbabweans wished for a military government. A survey by Afrobarometer before the coup showed that Zimbabweans trusted the military but they also rejected military government. The role of the military in removing Mugabe is, therefore, to be treated as an exception rather than the rule. Even the opposition, which normally called for the military to stay away from politics dropped their principles last November and openly backed the coup which in essence was direct military involvement in politics.
The problem is that the military tasted political authority and popularity. Since they did it once, they might be tempted to do it again. Did they carry out a coup, taking such drastic steps to win power, only to see it go a few months later? This is the question on most observers’ minds and they wonder whether the military will be able to stand aside if the opposition beats the odds to win the election. Will it even stand aside during the process of campaigning? Already, there are claims that military personnel have been deployed in rural areas.
Soon after the coup, a military general who has actively participated in election campaigns before was appointed as ZANU PF’s political commissar. He warned a repeat of the 2008 violent elections. Special Adviser to the President, Chris Mutsvangwa was also reported as having stated that the military would play a role. The war veterans, who are a classified as a reserve force of the military have also openly declared their support for Mnangagwa and ZANU PF and that they will be campaigning for them. They have openly described Nelson Chamisa as a youth who cannot lead Zimbabwe. Others have referred to him as a "toddler". They forget that they were younger than him when they became ministers and top civil servants in Mugabe's government at independence in 1980.
They are entitled to their political choices but those interested in the credibility of the elections have reason to be concerned because these are the same interest groups whose role in previous elections have tainted their legitimacy. It is ridiculous for them to dismiss a person on the basis of age, rather than ideas and ability to lead. They forget too that the majority of the people who are voting in the next elections are young people, most of them younger than Chamisa. They are fighting against the tide of a young generation that has been let down over the years; the unemployed who are keen on jobs rather than the age of their leader.
In the past, the role of traditional leaders has been controversial. Chiefs, headmen and other traditional institutions have been used by ZANU PF to control and influence the voting choices of rural voters. In 2013, there were many reports of traditional leaders gathering villagers under their jurisdiction to go and vote together and in many cases, helping them to vote as “assisted voters”.
Traditional authorities are an important part of local communities, with command and control over the population under their jurisdiction. They are also part of the aid distribution systems, which have been manipulated to favour ZANU PF. Oft-times, those considered to be opposition are excluded from the systems of food and agricultural inputs distribution networks. ZANU PF, in turn, has given favours to the chiefs, distributing brand new motor vehicles to them just months before the next elections.
Already, the top traditional leaders have waded into the political arena in a partisan manner. Chief Fortune Charumbira who is the president of the Council of Chiefs has openly declared support for ZANU PF and made statements that are prejudicial to the opposition. This conduct is a breach of the national constitution, which requires chiefs to be politically neutral and not to favour or prejudice any political party. Their conduct is already contaminating the legitimacy of the elections.
The voters’ roll is the single most important resource in an election. It is the sole record of the electorate. Only those who are on the voters’ roll are eligible to vote. It must be accurate, more so because the next election is polling-station based, which means voters will only be permitted to vote at the polling station at which they are registered. The voters’ roll has been a big problem in the past since it was in a poor state, with many inaccuracies, exclusions and included names of the deceased. It needed cleaning up and this is the first election which will be based on an entirely new voters’ roll based on the biometric system. Since the biometric system is new, there will inevitably be some teething problems. It is fundamental for ZEC to set aside adequate time for the inspection of the voter's roll. Those who registered must be given reasonable time to check the voters’ register to make sure that their details are accurately and properly recorded. This will reduce incidences of voters who are turned away on polling day because either their names do not appear on the voters roll or their details are inaccurately recorded.
Some worry that the new voters roll based on the BVR system is more susceptible to manipulation, especially because of the opaque manner in which the system has been run over the years. The issue of storage of data has proved contentious with fears that it could be manipulated if it is in the wrong hands. There is a need for transparency on the part of ZEC to ensure that participants are reassured. In past elections, electoral authorities failed the transparency test since they did not avail electronic copies of the voters roll to contesting parties. In 2013, the Registrar of Voters, Tobaiwa Mudede was obstinate and this behaviour severely compromised the integrity of the elections. This behaviour was condemned by both the AU and SADC observers. It is important for ZEC which is now directly in charge of the voters roll, to make sure electronic and auditable copies of the voters’ roll are availed to everyone in accordance with the law. This must be done within a reasonable time to enable parties to carry out their own audits and be satisfied that it is an accurate and credible record of voters. There would be no point of going into an election without access to a voters roll or with a voters’ roll that is inaccurate and lacking in credibility.
Public media plays a critical role in an election since it is, for many people the primary means by which they communicate and receive information. Public media invites greater scrutiny and more demands because is primarily funded by the taxpayer. In the case of the ZBC, there is a mandatory fee for every person with a device that receives broadcasts services. For this reason, it is important for public media to have an impartial and non-partisan approach. This is why the constitution places obligations of impartiality and fair coverage for all political players.
However, public media in Zimbabwe has been perennially partial towards ZANU PF and biased against the opposition. When the opposition is covered, it is for purposes of denigrating it while supporting ZANU PF. The bias of public media and its favouritism towards ZANU PF was noted by the AU and SADC observers during the 2013 elections. They both recommended changes. However, there has been no improvement. The situation is as bad under the new Mnangagwa administration as it was under the old Mugabe administration.
It is not possible to have a free, fair and credible election when the public media which is funded by taxpayers and has a wider reach than any other media is so biased in favour of ZANU PF and against the opposition. There has to be a sea-change in the way public media operates so that it complies with the constitution and rules of fair play before one can describe the electoral process as free and fair. Persistent bias and favouritism will inevitably taint the legitimacy of elections.
National Logistics Committee
Unbeknown to most people, the control-room of the elections is run by an opaque committee known as the National Logistics Committee. It does not feature much in the debates on electoral reforms because it appears and is prominent just before and disappears after the elections. This is probably the most important committee of ZEC because it controls the nuts and bolts of the electoral system.
To understand its role, here is what ZEC had to say in the 2013 elections report: “Because of the magnitude of the task of resource mobilization, the Commission [ZEC] relied on assistance from other state institutions that came together to set up a National Logistics Committee (NLC), which met regularly to coordinate mobilization of all the above resource requirements and also to supervise similar structures at provincial and district levels. The Commission commends everyone and NLC; and reiterates that ZEC would not have delivered on its mandate without the support, at both the institutional and individual level.”
It is clear from this that ZEC was highly dependent on the NLC in order to run the election and more importantly that it refers to “both the institutional and individual level”. A body such as ZEC should never have to be so dependent because it becomes beholden to those institutions and individuals. While most literature on elections focuses on the independence of ZEC, it ignores the centrality of the NLC whose independence is actually compromised and by implications compromises ZEC, the mother institution. It is important to understand the nature of the NLC.
The NLC is a committee of ZEC and is established in accordance with the Electoral Law. Its members are senior government officials. All the departments of the state that have a role in the running of elections are brought together under this committee. This is how ZEC described it in the 2013 elections report:
“Broadly, the NLC comprised high-level management is drawn from the Ministries of Justice and Legal Affairs, Finance, Information and Publicity, Local Government, Public Works, Water Resources, Transport and Communication, Home Affairs, Education, Sports and Culture, Health Services Board and Local Authorities. Assistance was sought and obtained from the Public Service Commission, the Office of the Registrar General of Voters (RGV), the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the Air Force of Zimbabwe (AFZ), the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), the Department of Roads, the District Development Fund (DDF), the Central Mechanical Equipment Department (CMED), the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), the Rural Electrification Agent (REA) and Tel-One, among many others.”
In short, the NLC is the face of government in elections. It’s a reminder that it is government, not ZEC that actually runs the elections. In this scheme of things, ZEC is the front office while the NLC runs the back office where the real operations are carried out. The NLC is the body that organizes everything from the printing of ballot papers, setting up of polling stations, transporting and feeding election officers to buying tissues and candles for them. It recruits election officers and manages them and their welfare.
Since it is so central to the election management system, the NLC must be more inclusive, fair and representative. At present, the NLC is merely a hub of government officials most of whom are politically compromised. The net effect is that while ZEC appears to be in charge, it is ZANU PF that is actually running these elections, through public officers.
ZEC generally sub-contracts a lot of its functions to these government departments. This includes the recruitment of election officers, who are mostly drawn from members of the civil service. It also includes the provision of transport services where it relies heavily on the government-controlled CMED. All this means the electoral system is heavily dependent on government and its personnel. There is need to reform the NLC so that its membership is broadened and more representative. Other countries in the region have co-opted opposition parties into logistics and planning for elections. That would be a good start because it ensures broader representation in the body that runs elections.
The credibility of the election will be in serious jeopardy if the NLC is not reformed in a manner that is inclusive and more representative. It is a committee which the opposition parties often forget until the few weeks before the elections when the machine is already running and it’s too late to call for reforms. I have written about the NLC twice since the 2013 elections because I observed how it worked and how it seriously disadvantaged the opposition. However, I have not heard any representations from the opposition regarding this committee. This is taking the eye off the ball. Neither ZEC nor ZANU PF will volunteer to reform the NLC. In fact, the new Chairperson, Justice Chigumba may be surprised when she finds out that the power that she thinks she has is actually in the hands of the NLC and she will have to just play along.
These are the red flags as Zimbabwe prepares for the election. The role of the military, traditional leaders and public media in the electoral process is already causing problems. The first two are prohibited from interfering in political affairs. The public media is enjoined to be fair, impartial and non-partisan. In all cases, the principle of political neutrality is paramount. As or the National Logistics Committee, it is the nerve centre of the entire election. Everything that’s being done now will all hinge upon the work of the National Logistics Committee. At present, it’s monopolized by government appointees, most of whom are compromised and politically partisan. It’s important to take the approach in peer countries, where opposition parties and civil society representatives have a representation in the logistics committee. Without opposition and civil society eyes and ears in this committee, everything being done to improve the credibility of the election will ultimately count for very little, if anything at all.
If the Mnangagwa administration wants legitimacy for this election, it must not only focus on prevention of violence but rein in traditional leaders, the military and public media while ensuring the National Logistics Committee is fair and representative.
But Mnangagwa's problem is not just fighting the traditional opposition. His fight is closer to home. It is the people within his own administration, the hardliners who are not willing to give an inch to the opposition. They don't care much about legitimacy as he does. They care about power; a power which they got by force last November and nobody resisted them. They got praise for it and they revelled in that power. It's not surprising that the new administration is becoming heavily militarised, sometimes even against Mngagwagwa's own wishes. His problem is not that he is battling the traditional opposition. It is that in addition, he is battling those within his own administration who believe they are more entitled to power that himself and those around him. Will they permit transfer of power if hey lose in the election? This is the biggest red flag as Zimbabwe approaches the next election.