BSR: the ghost of 2008 - Zimbabwe's self-inflicted wounds
The myth unravels
Politicians weave myths which they sell to the public in return for power. Like all myths, the success of a politician’s myth depends on the extent to which they are able to convince other people to believe in it.
When Emmerson Mnangagwa returned to Zimbabwe two weeks after he had been fired from his role as Vice President last November, he came with the myth of the “New Dispensation”. Finally, he was president and he began to craft and sell his own myth. Zimbabwe was “open for business”. It was a "new era". The past was behind us. He globe-trotted, appeared at important forums and sent his ministers where he could not go, all in an effort to charm the world.
He nearly succeeded. And he could have got away with it if the election had been without the horrible problems that have tainted it. But inexplicably, he has shot himself in the foot, all in the space of less than a week.
The message before the election was simple: his was a different Zimbabwe. It wasn’t the Zimbabwe of his old boss, Robert Mugabe, who was toppled by the military in a coup, paving an easy path for him to assume a long-cherished presidency.
Over the past few months, some were charmed. Others watched in sheer disbelief. Had he really changed? Was the crocodile really smiling? Others were more sceptical. Just because a crocodile is baring its teeth does not mean it is smiling, they warned, quoting the wisdom of their ancestors. Indeed, beyond the façade, it was evident that old habits were refusing to die. Mugabe was gone, but the system that he had built remained firmly in place.
And so it is that it did not take long before the myth of the New Dispensation began to unravel.
What the media is saying
“The tragedy of Zimbabwe” the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) bellowed from the heart of the world's financial capital in New York just a few days after Zimbabwe’s controversial election. “Robert Mugabe was deposed, but his methods live on,” the Editorial Board of the WSJ wrote. Their verdict is damning: “The election process and results show there’s no reason for the US or Europe to ease the diplomatic and financial pressure” [on Zimbabwe]. This is ominous.
The WSJ’s negative report is not an isolated case.
It reflects a growing pattern in international media which has reacted negatively to the flawed election and post-election violence in which the State, through the military, is a principal actor. From the US capital, The Washington Post wrote, “Zimbabweans voted for change. They got a new crisis instead.” Bloomberg weighed in with “How Zimbabwe’s First Election After Mugabe Went Wrong” In the Financial Times, another influential paper in the business world, David Pilling and Joseph Cotterill cast a gloomy picture of the current situation in their piece entitled, “Army violence dashes Zimbabwe’s plans to re-engage with the west”.
Cotterill had previously posted some damning tweets on the social media platform in which he narrated a hair-raising experience when he came face to face with a soldier while covering an opposition demonstration which rocked Harare two days after the election. The soldiers shot and killed at least 6 civilians (some reports allege there were more victims than the State has officially declared.) In his Financial Times piece, Cotterill describes the widespread character of the crackdown on opposition supporters by the military days after the initial deployment. The Financial Times described it as "a tarnished victory for the Zimbabwe's crocodile".
Over at The Guardian, a highly regarded British broadsheet, Patrick Wintour, the diplomatic editor, was also sounding sceptical, suggesting that the British government’s gamble on Mnangagwa may have backfired given the flawed election and the tragic events that followed. There is a general perception that Britain took sides with Mnangagwa. Some MPs in the British Parliament have demanded more direct and public condemnation of government excesses by the British Embassy in Harare.
The Economist, another influential British economic weekly, called it “a tarnished victory for Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe” and asks, whether the West will “overlook the ruling party’s political gamesmanship”. Also at The Guardian Jason Burke wrote an eloquent piece on the violent military crackdown in Harare’s high-density areas and in Chitungwiza, the dormitory town on the outskirts of Harare.
US-based Studio 7 which has a wide reach among Zimbabweans has also carried reports of political violence against opposition supporters. On Sunday, it carried several reports, including an incident at Murombedzi Growth Point on Mashonaland West, where an MDC member was assaulted by ZANU PF youths. It has also been alleged that market vendors were being removed from their stalls in retribution for allegedly voting for Nelson Chamisa and the MDC Alliance. Similar reports have been received in other areas across Zimbabwe.
The administration cannot pretend that the world media doesn't matter. When it assumed office, the PR machine made sure they occupied pages of these same newspapers. They were pleased to appear in the Financial Times, The Economist and The New York Times among others. They know how influential this media is, especially in the areas where they wish to push their agenda. The negative reaction to this farcical election and the violence that followed will hurt them.
Remembering 27 June
Zimbabweans have painful memories from ten years ago when the State led a brutal clampdown on citizens. Two years ago we had a BSR which recalled the dark days of 2008 and hoped that this would never be repeated. We posted it again a few weeks ago as a reminder. But it seems lessons from 2008 have fallen on deaf ears, mainly because perpetrators were never brought to account.
Like now, that assault on citizens was a military-led operation. It was called Operation Makavhotera Papi (which literally means, who did you vote for?) Voters were punished for allegedly voting for Morgan Tsvangirai, who had defeated Robert Mugabe in the March 29 election before results were manipulated to engineer a run-off election to give Mugabe a second bite of the cherry.
Before the eyes and ears of the world
Now, ten years later, the ghost of 2008 has returned. The difference is in 2008, most of the international media was barred from operating in Zimbabwe and international election observers were also unwelcome. The atrocities took place in a closed Zimbabwe and only brave local journalists or and human rights defenders brought light on what was going on. Foreign journalists had to operate undercover.
But human rights defenders who stood up for the victims also became victims. Jestina Mukoko, head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a local CSO which documented cases of political violence was abducted and held incommunicado by the regime. Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court later confirmed that she had been subjected to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. Ten years later, human rights defenders are again called to duty and will be in the line of fire.
This time, though, the atrocities are happening right in front of international media which is still camped in the country following the recent election whose outcome remains a subject of intense disputes. Mnangagwa claimed a narrow victory but his main rival, Chamisa argues that he was cheated and is currently petitioning the court for remedial action. It is the exercise of political freedoms as guaranteed in the Constitution that has prompted a vicious clampdown.
But signs of the administration's paranoia began to appear just before the election. A week before the election, police barred the opposition’s notice of a demonstration against the electoral authority, which they argue is institutionally biased. Two days after the election, when opposition supporters demonstrated in Harare, that’s when the military was called in to stop the demonstration which had turned violent.
But the soldiers used excessive force, shooting and killing people, some of whom had nothing to do with the demonstration. Even the British government, which has been accused of cosying up to the Mnangagwa administration weighed in with some criticism, saying they were concerned by “the disproportionate response from the security forces”.
Elsewhere, former Finance Minister, Tendai Biti is under siege from the authorities, prompting calls for restraint from some in the international community. His family and staff have not been spared. They claim he has questiosn to answer, but it is more likely he is being targeted as one of the main pillars of Chamisa's team. The State is not even pursuing soldiers who shot and killed people or those who are terrorizing residents in the high density areas. It's the old tactic of selective application of the law - one law for the opposition and another for the ruling party. A deputy minister of government, Terence Mukupe, urged the deployment of the army, allegedly because in his opinion police were too close to the MDC Alliance. Soon after the army were deployed and killed civilians. The same minister has previously stated publicly that the army would not allow Mnangagwa to lose power. Yet absolutely nothing was ever done by the State.
Biti is a well-known political figure and his precarious situation has drawn wider attention from around the world. But there are many more unknown or lesser known opposition members, including their polling agents who are under siege across the country. Take the case of Henry Chivhanga, also a victim of the political violence and persecution in 2008. His family had to flee to Botswana for safety during those heady days. On Sunday, he tweeted that his wife had found “bullet casings” outside the front door of their home when she woke up that morning. It’s an ominous sign for Chivhanga, especially given his prior experience a decade before. He was a candidate of the MDC Alliance in his area.
There are other similar cases. On Saturday, the re-elected MP for Mutasa Central, Trevor Saruwaka reported on social media that a youth leader in the area had been taken by unknown men and his whereabouts were unknown. He was later traced and found at a police station in Mutare.
At the BSR, we have received a number of messages from young people in different rural parts of Zimbabwe who claim they are living in fear as they have been threatened by ZANU PF. They are accused of having voted for Chamisa and the MDC Alliance. One of the weaknesses of the polling station-based voters rolls and voting system is that it is easy to identify the voting pattern in a local area. This is because only people who are registered at a particular polling station are permitted to vote there and often these are people in the local area. The risk of retribution was raised when this system was introduced, but it was dismissed. There is a genuine fear that voters are being targeted and those areas that voted predominantly for the opposition will be targeted.
Why the clampdown?
In the last BSR, we explained how it defied logic for Mnangagwa to carry out this embarrassing clampdown on citizens at a time when he is supposed to be cementing his claims to legitimacy. The post-election behaviour of the State is totally at odds with its conduct prior to the poll. Why, in any event, would a party which is claiming victory turn violent on citizens? Before the poll, with Mnangagwa keen to secure legitimacy, he preached peace and non-violence. But hardly a week after polling day, the beast of state-sponsored political violence has returned and it’s vicious.
It appears to be a strategy of political retribution as opposition supporters are deliberately targeted. There is also a sense of triumphalism and impunity among ruling party supporters. Since they have never been held accountable for political violence in the past, they have resorted to default mode. This is why it is important to bring perpetrators of political violence to justice. Unfortunately, ZANU PF has nurtured a culture of impunity over the years, with perpetrators given amnesty, pardoned or simply not prosecuted for their crimes.
It is difficult to explain the post-election behaviour of the Mnangagwa administration. As argued in the last BSR, it could be that Mnangagwa has simply lost control of the security sector or parts of it and these acts are being directed by a parallel authority which is pursuing its own vision and agenda. Indeed, he has shown alarming signs that he may not have been informed of the deployment of soldiers or riot police on at least two occasions. However, it could also be that the crocodile is just being the crocodile – feigning ignorance of events when he is the author of events.
But if he is the author, does this mean he doesn’t actually care about legitimacy? Maybe he is unsure of his victory and knows it stands on shaky ground. In that case, the strong-arm tactics are deliberately designed to protect fragile power and to keep the enemy at bay. There is a genuine fear of political action by the people. The heavy clampdown and use of soldiers are designed to cow people into submission and to remind them that the military is the underwriter of this administration.
"Too much freedom"
There were already signs that the regime, or at least some within the regime, where concerned at what they saw as “excessive freedom” among the people. They allegedly criticised Mnangagwa for allowing too much freedom in the run-up to the election. Mnangagwa’s Foreign Minister, S.B. Moyo is quoted in the Financial Times describing Zimbabweans as lacking experience in having freedom. In this patronising fashion, Moyo and others within the regime believe people have too much freedom. The military clampdown is part of that measures to remind people of the limits of their freedom.
Also if Chamisa’s election challenge succeeds, it might become necessary to hold a run-off election. By the time it comes on September 8, voters would have been sufficiently intimidated and cowed into submission. Brutalised, voters would stay at home or vote “properly” at the run-off election. That is, after all, what happened in 2008, prompting Morgan Tsvangirai to pull out of the farcical election process.
Incredibly, the army has distanced itself from the brutalities in the urban high density and rural areas. They claimed they had not deployed any military units and whoever was committing violence were criminals. They urged the public to report them to the police.
This sounds implausible. If indeed, there is a rogue element which is carrying out these heinous acts in the name of the army, then surely the security forces should take greater interest to ensure the protection of its reputation and the security of citizens? If there is a parallel command structure which is behind these actions, then the military bosses and the civilian government should be seriously concerned. The denial of responsibility is hard to take seriously let alone believe.
The most important concern is that innocent people are now living in terror. It’s useful that international media is still present and documenting these events to the outside world. With the AU and SADC having given their verdicts prematurely, they may have to revise their opinions given what has happened since polling day. How can it be a free vote when it attracts retribution after the event? The Elders Group were quick to lecture the opposition on how to address their concerns when they came to Harare before the election. Now though, the State is using excessive force and killing citizens, but words of condemnation and advice have been slow to come.
As for the Mnangagwa administration, in just a few days, the myth of the New Dispensation has been eroded. The clampdown after the election has reminded doubters that their fears were not far-fetched. Already, the international media is building a narrative that there is nothing new or different about the new administration. And no-one has caused this except the ruling party itself. The violent crackdown has done more to erode claims to legitimacy than anything else in the past nine months. Those who were beginning to buy the myth of the New Dispensation have had a rude awakening in the last few days.
For Mnangagwa and ZANU PF, they will look for scapegoats but the truth is that these are self-inflicted wounds. They will bury their heads in the sand and find someone else to blame forgetting that there was absolutely no need to shoot at unarmed civilians or harass and beat up residents in their homes. The hard truth is they should simply stop the clampdown on the opposition and desist from brutalising innocent citizens. It will be very hard to reclaim lost ground. Even if their prevail in the electoral process which is yet to conclude, they have damaged their prospects of international acceptance and legitimacy.