Editorial: We must respect Zimbabwe’s choice

Zimbabwe is a country in need of a saviour.

Its politics are broken, as has been underscored repeatedly during the electoral process, which has been characterised by irregularities, and reached its nadir on Wednesday when three unarmed demonstrators were shot dead by soldiers in Harare.

Its economy has collapsed, leaving the government unable to borrow hard currency in meaningful amounts, and citizens had to queue for hours outside ATMs to withdraw the small amounts of cash they are permitted.

Its health and education systems, once the pride of Southern Africa, are also in dire straits. Teachers, doctors and nurses regularly go unpaid and work in substandard facilities without the necessary equipment.

The only thing holding Zimbabwe together is the indomitable spirit of Zimbabweans themselves, who keep the country running in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles: the civil servants who keep turning up at their desks, even when they can never be sure that a pay cheque is coming; the small-scale entrepreneurs devising ingenious methods of overcoming the cash crunch; the residents who band together to tidy up their own neighbourhoods.

Zimbabweans deserve better. But saviours are a few and far between.

When Emmerson Mnangagwa and his coterie of generals ousted Robert Mugabe, he promised to implement reforms. But any illusions about his new dispensation were shattered when the army was summoned into the centre of Harare. This is not the behaviour of a democratic government.

But Mnangagwa has refused to blame the army for the violence. Instead, he told the political opposition that they were responsible for the deaths of their own supporters. Somehow, in Mnangagwa’s mind, the use of live ammunition against an unarmed, albeit unruly, demonstration constitutes an appropriate use of force.

Not that there aren’t questions for that opposition. The MDC Alliance’s young and untested leader, Nelson Chamisa, broke the law when he claimed to have won the presidential vote. That law — the one that prohibits political parties from pre-empting official election results — exists precisely to prevent the shocking scenes witnessed in Harare. Was Chamisa being naive? Or could he have anticipated that his unilateral declaration of victory, coupled with claims of vote rigging, would provoke his supporters into a reckless protest? Either way, his actions undermine confidence in his ability to govern.

To their credit, election observers were quick to denounce the “excessive use of force” used by soldiers on Wednesday. That message was conveyed in a joint statement from the European Union, the United States, the Commonwealth, the African Union and other observer missions. But how far will the international community really go to protect Zimbabwe’s democracy?

If recent history is any guide, the answer is not that far. Regional and international bodies were quick to legitimise the military intervention that brought Mnangagwa to power. The end — removing Mugabe — justified the means at the time. How many deaths are required to reverse that calculation?

There are no saviours here.

Except, of course, for Zimbabweans themselves, who voted this week for their president. That choice can and must be respected.

We must remember that a victory for the ruling party does not on its own constitute proof of rigging, as some in the opposition would argue. We must also remember that irregularities and anomalies occur in all elections, all over the world; that every vote is flawed in some respect. Isolated incidents do not necessarily invalidate a vote — the question is whether these irregularities are widespread enough to definitively change the result.

The only people qualified to answer that question are the 43 different sets of election observers in Zimbabwe. The Guardian noted that “these elections were probably the most monitored in African democratic history — a marked contrast to the previous rigged elections in 2013”. At this stage, we have little choice but to trust in their conclusions — whether we like them or not.

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