/ 2 September 2022

Calls for Zimbabwe to deal with atrocities and intimidation before 2023 elections

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Repression: Zanu-PF supporters attack people at a rally, while Citizens Coalition for Change supporters make their message clear. Photos: Jekesai Njisana/AFP & Zinyange Auntony/AFP

As Zimbabwe heads towards its 2023 national elections, there are increasing calls for the country to undo conditions that have led to political violence. 

Since the country’s independence in 1980, consistent Zanu-PF electoral victories have been disputed by opposition parties and international observers, who have cited voter intimidation and claims of state-sponsored violence.

The National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG) says in its update report that the government must address these issues, which include reports of torture, failures to prosecute perpetrators and the intimidation of civil society and opposition parties. 

This comes amid the continued arrest and detention of opposition politicians and pro-democracy activists, with post-indepedence atrocities and post-2000 abductions and murder of Zanu-PF critics not being addressed.

Ruling party supporters named by witnesses and the police as instigators of political violence and accused of killing opposition party supporters have, in successive years, escaped justice, with critics saying impunity has shaped the Zanu-PF administration’s modus operandi.

While former president Robert Mugabe infamously boasted that Zanu-PF had degrees in violence, his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa has called for peaceful political campaigns.

But Mnangagwa’s critics say his supporters ignore such pleas, with Abton Mashayanyika, a religious leader affiliated to Zanu-PF, recently calling for the assassination of Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) leader Nelson Chamisa.

He has not been arrested.

Veterans of the 1970s bush war have also repeatedly threatened to take up arms in the event that the opposition wins presidential elections.

They, too, have escaped the law. 

Political violence victims and their families await their day in court as part of transitional justice processes but fears dating back to the often brutal reign of Mugabe are that such a day will never come.

“Government must refrain from using the criminal justice system to persecute opponents,” the working group said in its update report.

This is in reference to the continued detention and court appearances of opposition politicians such as CCC legislator and deputy chairperson Job Sikhala, who has been in prison for more than two months after being charged with inciting public violence.

“As civil society we have tried to engage government on matters of human rights to the extent that we have even approached the Zimbabwe Republic police commissioner general,” said Wilbert Mandinde, the programme coordinator at the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, which is part of the NTJWG consortium.

Although the government established the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) in 2013 to address historical and contemporary transitional justice issues, the working group noted with concern that the commission lacks capacity to execute its mandate.

The commission has, since its inception, been criticised for being packed with Zanu-PF sympathisers, effectively compromising public interest investigations under its jurisdiction.

What has topped the commission’s public hearings are the early 1980s Gukurahundi atrocities that remain unresolved, with the commission criticised for being ineffective in helping victims.

“The decision to give the mandate of resolving the Gukurahundi to the chiefs and sidelining the NPRC is confusing to the victims who were told that the NPRC came into existence to deal with post-conflict healing, peace, and reconciliation,” the working group said.

The ruling party has long resisted calls for a truth and reconciliation commission as seen in countries such as South Africa, which held public hearings to address apartheid-era human rights abuses.

Other issues raised by the working group are the intentions of the contentious Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, which is seen as further creating conditions that are hostile to the transitional justice agenda.

“An analysis of the Bill shows that it is too far-reaching to be viewed as a legitimate means to regulate civil society,” the group said. “The Bill is not only poorly drafted but also unconstitutional as it places unreasonable limits on the right to freedom of expression and association.” 

Criticising the president as part of freedom of expression guaranteed under the country’s Constitution has landed many in court charged with undermining the head of state.

Civic society organisations involved in matters of peace and reconciliation fear that they will be targeted, as evidenced by their run-ins with the authorities when they sought to collect testimonials from victims of past human rights violations and to carry out voter education programmes.

“The role of PVOs in voter education is clear. Without them, that role is left to political parties who will certainly be partisan,” said Mandinde.

“PVOs have managed to step in where government bodies have not been able to carry out their mandate according to the expectations of the law. It is the role of PVOs to monitor elections. This cannot be done by government-appointed agencies.” 

Human rights lawyer Otto Saki said: “Repressive regimes that are passing laws globally care less about the role of civil society. Laws of this nature will pass and more will come as we head towards elections.”