This new Zimbabwe is not so different, after all


On Wednesday, the ‘New Zimbabwe’ disappeared in a puff of teargas and a hail of live ammunition, as soldiers attacked civilians and tanks rolled through the streets of Harare city centre.

At least three people have reportedly died. Others were injured. The election, cautiously praised as “peaceful” by election observers earlier in the day, can no longer be considered as such.

We should not have been surprised.

There has been a lot of wordplay over the nature of the intervention that ousted President Robert Mugabe late last year. It was not a coup, said the new president. It was not a military takeover, said the military. It was all legal and in accordance with the constitution, said parliament.

The international community — along with many Zimbabweans — has been prepared to give President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Vice-President Constantine Chiwenga the benefit of the doubt. They have changed. Reformed. This time, everything would be different. Never mind that one was Mugabe’s right-hand man, and the other was in charge of Mugabe’s army.

It fell to the unlikely, cadaverous figure of Mugabe himself to call a tank a tank, speaking to journalists on the eve of the vote. “Our neighbours are fooled to believe that it was not a coup d’etat. Nonsense, it was a coup d’etat,” he said.

The retired dictator is not wrong. It was a coup d’etat, led by old school autocrats who were moulded by Mugabe in his own image. And sure enough, their ‘new dispensation’ has failed its very first test: a peaceful, credible election.

Doubts about the integrity of the vote were raised months before voting day: There were 250 000-plus irregular entries on the voters roll; the design of the ballot paper was manipulated to give Mnangagwa extra prominence; the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission appeared biased in favour of the ruling party; the army was brought in to help transport ballot boxes; and state media did not even pretend to be nonpartisan.

To the government’s credit, some things did improve: for the first time, the opposition were allowed to campaign freely in Zanu-PF strongholds; and physical intimidation of voters lessened dramatically.

The international community made it clear, repeatedly, that it was content to ignore the flaws in the vote. So too, under protest, did the main opposition alliance, who said they were so confident of victory that they would win despite any rigging that may occur.

But the results released so far by the ZEC — if they can be relied upon — suggests that this confidence was badly misplaced. According to the electoral commission, the MDC won just 64 seats. Zanu-PF has 144 seats. That is enough to give them a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

Results for the presidential election have yet to be announced. It is conceivable that the MDC Alliance could still put in a strong showing for the top job, with voters more likely to unite behind a single candidate at presidential level than at parliamentary level. But their victory is far from certain, as opposition leader Nelson Chamisa would have his followers believe — and anyway, it is still too early to say anything for sure.

Nonetheless: “THANK YOU ZIMBABWE,” Chamisa tweeted on Wednesday afternoon. “We have won the popular vote. You voted for total Change in this past election! We have won this one together. No amount of results manipulation will alter your WILL.”

When the causes of Wednesday’s violence are dissected, Chamisa should not escape blame. 

Claiming victory before any official announcement violates Zimbabwe’s election laws, and there is no doubt that his proclamation incited his supporters, who descended in their hundreds on Zanu-PF headquarters, burning tyres and throwing stones. Chamisa must have anticipated that, at the very least.

But Chamisa didn’t pull any triggers. Zimbabwe’s army, once again intervening in the country’s politics, did. It is unclear at this stage who ordered the troops in — or why they responded with such brutality — except that brutality is the modus operandi of Zimbabwe’s security forces, and has been for decades.

Things haven’t changed. This is not reform. This new Zimbabwe is not so new, after all.

The most surprising aspect of it all is not the violence at all. Mnangagwa and his generals had so nearly got away with it. They were just days away from consolidating their power via the ballot box; from convincing the world that Zimbabwe’s election was “credible”, and that they were the country’s legitimate government. This would have been the cue for a desperately-needed influx of foreign exchange from international donors and investors — foreign exchange which would have further consolidated their authority.

On Wednesday, however, the new regime showed its true colours. This is a military government that came to power via a military coup. Their power comes not from the ballot box, but via the barrels of their guns — the same guns responsible for the bloodshed in Harare city centre.

Once again, putting aside the rank hypocrisy, Mugabe had it right: “I will not vote for those who have illegally taken power. I hope the choice of voting tomorrow will throw, thrust away the military government and bring us back to constitutionality.”

For Mugabe, and the millions of other Zimbabweans who dared to dream that their country really had changed for the better, that hope is fading fast.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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