The snake charmer
“Happy madam?”, he said with a conspiratorial sideways glance and a wide grin, which quickly transformed into a burst of knowing laughter. Barely an instant later, his facial expression changed, his eyes searching in the crowd for the next question.
Clad in military fatigues, the soldier was trying his best to put up a relaxed, accessible and charming demeanour. His audience was a group of inquisitive journalists. At that moment, he had just ducked a hard question posed by Violet Gonda, one of the journalists in attendance at the press conference. His name is Colonel Everson Mugwisi, the public relations chief of Zimbabwe’s military.
Gonda had asked whether the military would allow a smooth transfer of power after the election should results go against ZANU PF.
“Smooth handover … smooth hand-over … er … you did not complete that question. To whom?” the colonel asked with the naughty tone of one who poses a question whose answer they already know. The laugh at the end of the question betrayed him. And the room joined him in knowing laughter.
Gonda clarified that she meant smooth hand-over if a party other than ZANU PF wins the election.
“Argh, ok!” the colonel said charmingly, like someone who suddenly discovers he asked what he should have known all along. “It’s now a complete question!” Everyone laughs again. There’s a pleasantness to the exchange, as if between two long-lost friends.
Then he swiftly reverts to usual mode and like a programmed robot repeats: “The conduct of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces will remain guided by the Constitution.” He goes one for a bit before concluding, “That should suffice”.
Then there was a pause and the quick glance in Gonda’s direction and that smile and burst of laughter after saying “Happy madam?” - clearly a question that was not meant to be answered.
“Time will tell,” Gonda’s voice can be heard in the background. The colonel pretends he didn’t hear and drifts away as he searches the room for the next questioner. He doesn’t know that the next inquierers will throw the same ball, albeit in from different directions.
This was both the soldier and public relations man at work, exhibiting a soft veneer which, at the same time, covered a steely, rigid and unbending interior. He was like a snake charmer – feigning a move, a dummy strike in this and that direction, dodging a bite, trying hard to mesmerize and hypnotize the target. It didn’t quite work like that. The target was alert and too quick. The questions were hard and to the point. The hacks refused to be mesmerized. The nation could not be hypnotized.
The press conference
It had been a while since the military held a press conference or issued a statement to the press. For a while since the coup last November, the nation had become used to regular press statements from the military. Those regular media updates and appearances were a sign of the times. The military was in charge and it was communicating directly with the citizens, rather than through civilian authorities. Those were unusual times.
On the 4th of July 2018, the military’s PR man, Colonel Everson Mugwisi convened a press conference at which according to his statement, he sought to address two particular issues: first, the role of the military in the forthcoming elections and second, the role of the media in reporting the role of the military.
It was clear that the military is unhappy with the way its role has been reported by the media, which is accused of publishing falsehoods. A particular concern was over the alleged deployment of troops in rural areas, ostensibly for purposes of intimidating villagers into supporting ZANU PF. He cited a few examples of these alleged falsehoods and misrepresentations.
However, if the major aim was to clarify the role of the military’s role in the election and to allay fears that it would interfere in or affect the electoral process, the press conference left many questions in the air. There was too much ambiguity, vagueness and evasiveness in response to pointed questions.
One question kept coming, albeit in different guises. It was, in essence, whether the military would honour and uphold an election outcome that did not favour the current ruling party, ZANU PF. Despite his attempts to maintain a cool and relaxed demeanor, the fact that this question kept coming in different forms began to irritate him. What he may not have realized was that the question kept coming because his attempts to answer it were unsatisfactory.
Indeed, it seemed as if he had been programmed like a robot to answer the question in one way, however differently the journalists tried to frame it. This robotic approach is in part a function of the command system that he serves. He is not after all, the authority that answers substantive question. He is, as with every spokesperson, a mouthpiece and an agent that represents a principal. He can only say what he has been told to say.
The fact that he was a mere agent also explains why he insisted on keeping within the brief which he had presented. He had no authority to discuss anything beyond that press statement, even if such questions had a bearing on the election. This inability to respond to these questions, citing the excuse that they were beyond the brief also demonstrates why, with all due respect the task, that needed to be executed was well above his rank.
Given the political and historical context and the concerns regarding the role of the military, the task clarifying it and allaying fears should have been executed by the top generals, not by the PR director. History matters because it was the top generals who in the past have issued statements that have had a negative bearing on the election. When they issued a statement just before the 2002 presidential election where they made the infamous “the presidency is a strait-jacket” declaration, the generals did not send a PR director for that job. They did it themselves. Indeed, when they usurped power on 15 November, the face of the coup was Major-General S.B. Moyo, as he then was. It was a job for big boys.
Likewise, if they really want to retract that statement, as has been suggested by the opposition and others concerned with the restoration of legitimacy to Zimbabwe, it is ideal that the top generals do it themselves. It was the big boys who got the military mired in the murky waters of politics and it is the big boys who can announce a departure and be taken seriously.
Going into the substance of the statement, as already indicated, the PR man had a robotic response to the major question as to how the military would handle the election outcome. “Our conduct is going to be guided by the Constitution,” he said. Asked for a second time, he repeated the same answer that the conduct of the ZDF would be guided by the constitution.
But what really does it mean when the colonel says the conduct of the ZDF would be guided by the Constitution?
Ambiguity of “guided by the Constitution"
On the one hand, a proper reading of the Constitution, based on section 208, is that the military has no role in politics. The military or its members should not act in a partisan manner, further or prejudice the interests of any political party or cause. Indeed, it should respect the electoral process, not unlawfully interfere in it and respect the outcome.
On that reading of the Constitution, the statement of the ZDF sits perfectly with the tenets of constitutionalism. If the ZDF’s conduct is guided by section 208 as stated, that would be perfect. It would mean that they would remain apolitical, not take any sides and would respect the election outcome and support power transfer from one government to the next, whoever is the winner. However, last November’s coup left us with another, very different and retrogressive reading of the Constitution and the role of the military.
The military used the Constitution to justify its intervention in political affairs, which led to the ouster of the Mugabe government and its replacement by the Mnangagwa administration. The military argued that they were defending the Constitution and cited section 212 in support of their role. Section 212 states that the function of the military is “to protect Zimbabwe, its people, its national security and interests and its territorial integrity and to uphold the Constitution”. A High Court order issued by Justice Chiweshe actually held that the conduct of the military was constitutional. That High Court order, is a legal oddity in that it practically legalised a coup, but it has not been overturned.
This was oxymoronic because the military claimed to be upholding the Constitution which it was breaching. Section 213 gives sole authority to the President, as Commander in Chief to deploy troops. President Mugabe did not order any deployment of troops – a question that Colonel Mugwisi deftly dodged at this press conference. How then could the military have claimed to have acted lawfully and constitutionally to protect a Constitution which they were breaching?
Nevertheless, the result is that at present, there is a legal precedent which states that the military can lawfully and constitutionally intervene to affect the political process on the basis of section 212 of the Constitution. In other words, if the military decide to intervene in the electoral process before, during or after the election, it could, on the basis of the High Court order argue that its conduct “is guided by the Constitution” - the same answer that Colonel Mugwisi gave several times during the press conference.
This, therefore, is why Colonel Mugwisi’s programmed response that the ZDF will be guided by the Constitution is ambiguous and unhelpful. It could mean they will stay out of politics and not interfere as mandated by section 208, or it could mean they will intervene if they want on the basis of protecting the Constitution as held by the Court affirming that this is what section 212 allows.
The ambiguity could have been avoided and the answer should have been very simple: the military will respect the outcome of the election and support transfer of power, whoever wins. In response to whether the military would not stand in the way of an opposition victory, the answer again should simply be that they would respect the will of the people and support whoever is elected.
Such clear and unambiguous answers would have done more to allay fears. What we got instead were vague undertakings which leave the audience unsure as to how exactly the military will respond because in the past its interventions have been on one side in order to achieve a specific political outcome – 2008 and 2017.
Whose performance was it for?
So what was the motivation behind the press statement by the military? Why now? Is it genuine or another box-ticking exercise? There are several possibilities:
First, it may be that the military is aware of suspicions of bias and partisan interference in elections and the generals felt they needed to clarify its role and clear the air. But they do not have much regard for it, they thought it was for a PR person to execute. Or the generals are so professional that they are also sending a message to their political counterparts that they don’t want to be dragged into the politics so they used the formal channel of communication rather than bring the command element to the forefront. If that was the purpose, it was not a very successful effort because, as already explained, the standard form answer that they will be guided by the constitution left more questions than answers.
Second, it may be that the military was responding to calls that it should make a statement reversing previous statements that left the impression that they were biased and compromised. External groups that have carried out pre-election assessments in recent weeks have called on the military to make a clear statement on its role given previous statements by generals which left the military compromised.
One such report was a Joint Statement by IRI and NDI, US organisations which carried out a pre-election assessment and made recommendations one of which was that “Senior officers of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) should make public and unambiguous statements that all branches of the military will loyally serve the winner of this and future elections.” However, as already stated, this was not a very successful effort as it left more questions than answers. The statement was ambiguous.
The third reason is linked to the first two. It is that the press conference was a performance for the international community as part of the grand scheme of building a facade in order to purchase legitimacy. Having engineered the ascendancy of Mnangagwa to the presidency, there is a view that the military is heavily invested in the current administration. As one journalist asked during the press conference, if the military intervened in November in order to prevent a ZANU PF defeat under Mugabe, what would stop them intervening in order to prevent a ZANU PF defeat under Mnangagwa?
It was a simple and straightforward question which required a simple and straightforward answer. However, the colonel simply brushed it aside, saying that they were now “deviating” from the purpose of the press conference. The quality of questions from the journalists was actually quite impressive. They did a good job of connecting the forthcoming election to the coup. It was not a “deviation” to ask the implications of the coup and the military’s perceptions of its constitutional role on the forthcoming election. The problem is that the questions were clearly above the colonel’s rank and he had to avoid them or he would be getting into uncharted territory.
This performance for the international community was not satisfactory. The audience was left with a host of questions. It might have been better if the military generals had addressed the nation, just as their predecessors have done before when they made declarations whose implications still reverberate in these elections. The need for that is even more pertinent now in the wake of the coup last November in which the military clearly intervened in politics. They had done so before, in 2008, in order to prevent Mugabe’s defeat. But 2017, was more blatant. If they want to perform for the domestic and international audience and to allay fears of intervention, it is the top generals who have to do the performance.
Other areas of concern
The press conference also revealed other issues of concern. First is the issue of postal voting. The colonel indicated that arrangements would be made for soldiers on duty on polling day to use postal voting and went on to allay fears that postal voting could be used to manipulate the election. True, it is fair that those who are on duty must be allowed to vote through some other method. In the last election, Special Voting provisions were used but they were abandoned for this election.
However, rather disconcertingly, the colonel did not know the number of soldiers who had applied for postal voting. Knowing that there were already suspicions, the military should have come prepared with facts and figures on this matter. This should pretty easy to obtain. That he did not have the relevant data made his statement pretty useless and only left the audience with more questions than satisfaction. ZEC has already disclosed that there are 7,200 applications for postal voting. The opposition parties and observers must monitor this carefully to make sure that this facility of postal voting is not abused.
When asked pointed questions by journalist Blessed Mhlanga about the military’s active role in ZANU PF’s primary elections back in April for which there is evidence, the colonel was evidently flummoxed and dodged the questions. “I’m not aware” he said at one point, clearly unwilling to engage further on the issue. At that point, a tone of impatience overcame the façade of charm that he had presented up to that point. When asked who had authorized the deployment of troops during the coup, his response was once again that they were “drifting away” from what they had set out to do at the press conference.
The colonel had come for a performance. But he had evidently not budgeted for the uncomfortable questions that would connect the coup to the current election. The media had not come to be lectured. They had questions and those questions were not answered satisfactorily.
There was more than a hint that the military would provide transport to ZEC. Journalists asked questions over this issue and suggested to the colonel why it would be a bad idea both for the military’s and ZEC’s image if they were seen to be transporting ballot boxes to and from polling stations. This is critical given the vested interests arising from the November coup which installed the incumbent regime. A role for the military in normal circumstances may not be such a problem. But these are extraordinary circumstances and it would be better for the sake of electoral legitimacy for the military to stay away from this role so that it is limited to assisting the police to maintain law and order.
Colonel Mugwisi tried to charm his way through the press conference. He may not have anticipated the tough inquisition to which he was subjected by the group of journalists. He did not contest when Gonda referred to the “coup”, a word many conveniently skirt around. He protested that the questions went beyond his brief. But they were pertinent questions which had a direct bearing on the forthcoming elections. He just wasn’t prepared for them and he realised the hacks were dragging him into murky waters. He was unyielding. He did not bend, choosing instead to stick to the rigid formula that the military would be guided by the Constitution, a statement whose meaning after the coup is afflicted with ambiguity.
He could have been adventurous enough to offer his opinions. But his field does not permit such personal adventures. He is, after all, a soldier and men like him are accustomed to a command structure. You do what you are commanded to do. Nothing more or you invite tough sanctions. This is why the commanders themselves should have come to do the job. Back in the village, the elders would say they sent a boy to do a man’s job. It was too big for the colonel.
The European Union’s yellow card
Finally, a quick note on the European Union Observer Mission’s pre-election press statement on Friday. The EU has sent observers to Zimbabwean elections since 2002, an important change in approach which was hailed when the Mnangagwa administration took charge. It is part of efforts to rebuild relations with the West. It was welcome news for the opposition as it would potentially provide incentives for the ruling party to behave and ensure free, fair and credible elections.
The opposition received a boost on Friday when a number of their concerns effectively got validation from the comments of the EU observer mission. While acknowledging the political freedoms and the relative absence of violence that have allowed parties to campaign more freely than in past elections, the EU observers also made it clear that it is necessary to ensure there are enough measures to enhance the credibility of the elections.
Of critical significance was their reference to technical aspects of the electoral process, including media access, which must be fair and objective and the integrity of the voters roll, whose anomalies must be fixed before the elections. This is an important message given ZEC’s previous declaration that those who were unhappy with the voters roll could approach the courts before or after the elections to have anomalies fixed.
It only makes sense to have anomalies fixed prior to the election. As it is, indications are that the voters roll lacks integrity. ZEC ought to read the statements by the EU observer mission as an indication that these anomalies must be fixed or they might affect the integrity of the voters roll and therefore the legitimacy of the election.
Another important highlight of the EU observer mission’s statement relates to the issue of ballot paper printing. They stated that they had noted the concerns raised by the opposition over ballot paper printing, a process which in the words of the Deputy Chief of the EU Observer Mission “wasn’t quite as we expected either”. This understatement actually means the EU observers found the process unsatisfactory. They expected ZEC to be more open and transparent than they showed on that occasion. In other words, ZEC has failed to be transparent and fair on the aspect of ballot paper printing. This is an indictment on the referee which just do more to convince observers that it is fair, impartial and transparent.
The observers also reinforced the importance of secrecy of the vote and issued a warning that local leaders must not interfere with or unduly influence voters in making their choices. There have long been complaints over the years that voters in rural areas are corralled and unduly influenced by local traditional leaders in order to support the ruling party. The observers warned that in assessing the election, they would consider the environment and context in which the election is taking place. Where voters feel that they are being unduly influenced especially by local leaders, they should report to observers.
Asked about the role of the military and its possible involvement in transporting ballot materials, the observers acknowledged the statement issued by the military that they would be guided by the constitution but also went on to advise that it would help if key actors avoided anything that could affect the credibility of the election. Although they could not say the military should not be involved, the observers were indicating in their understated way that the involvement of the military could impact the credibility of elections.
The observers were obviously not passing judgment on the election. As they stated, it was premature to make any definitive statement. Why then did they issue this statement? They are trying to incentivize ZEC and the government to conduct a free, fair and credible election. They are giving warning signals on the unsatisfactory elements of the elections so far, which must be fixed. They will not be fooled by tokenism but they will consider the substantive aspects of the election. It would be foolhardy for ZEC or the government to ignore the signals because if the anomalies are not fixed, ZANU PF will not get the legitimacy that it’s desperate for in this election.
As for the opposition, they will feel that their concerns and complaints are vindicated. The EU observers statement is in sharp contrast to ZEC’s condescending remarks over the opposition’s complaints, which it has called “petty”. Clearly, the EU observers do not think these concerns are petty. They go to the heart of the election and its credibility. They are legitimate complaints which require attention, failure of which may affect the legitimacy of the election.
The EU observers statement should jolt the Mnangagwa administration into some improvements over the next few weeks. It controls ZEC and it can use its influence to do better. Right now the report is negative and it’s not good news for all his efforts to purchase legitimacy. Mnangagwa is desperate for legitimacy and he would do well to take these signals carefully and ensure the election is not another charade that it is threatening to be. The irony is that ZEC may now spring into action, not because of the opposition, but because of the signals from observers.
The arrogance displayed by some ZEC commissioners on public platforms is a disgrace. They are not conducting themselves with the integrity and decorum expected of persons at their station in public life. Their conduct reflects poorly upon ZEC and severely diminishes its credibility and that of the electoral process they are mandated to run and supervise.