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Zimbabwe Election Watch – An IFEX Diary

On 30 July, Zimbabweans went to the polls to elect the first post-Mugabe government. Since then, tensions have simmered and then erupted. Reyhana Masters, IFEX's Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Editor, is in Harare, and shares her impressions of the developing situation below.

The weeks leading up to the elections were intense. From the recent charges of illegal postal voting, an apparent assassination attempt against President Emmerson Mnangagwa at a political rally, and voter intimidation tactics, to an election-related breach of personal information, internet slowdowns and shutdowns – there have been growing concerns about brewing violence and whether these elections can result in a democratic outcome. There are many active, creative local groups including IFEX member MISA Zimbabwe that are working to identify and address these roadblocks and support a free and fair process.

A prospective voter (L) checks her voter registration details with ZEC officials on May 29, 2018 at an inspection centre in Harare
A prospective voter (L) checks her voter registration details with ZEC officials on May 29, 2018 at an inspection centre in Harare


First Thoughts

18 July, 2018 6:00 pm CAT (Central Africa Time)

It's just after 7pm. It's a chilly evening in Harare, and the foremost thought on my mind is how to keep warm. Piping hot coffee and a hot water bottle are just not doing it.

I'm sitting down to write my first blog entry, to share my reading of some of the events and some of the conversations we're having here in Zimbabwe in the days leading up to the country's election on 30 July.

As in any country, elections are inseparable from issues like the right to freedom of expression and information. Voters need access to information in order to make informed choices. Candidates need to feel safe to express themselves. And the media need to be able to report, freely and without fear. In previous elections we fought hard for these rights. It's slightly different this time around. There have been changes, and of course we would like to see more changes. A discussion for another day.

For this first post, though, I'll just focus on setting the scene – give a snapshot of where we are at, how we got here, and some of the main questions we are grappling with now. I hope to help bring some clarity as events continue to unfold in the coming days and weeks.

Admittedly, lately many of us have been more focused on World Cup soccer than the upcoming elections. It was a fleeting and exciting diversion, but that interlude has been replaced with uncertainty and confusion.

We are grappling with difficult choices. With 10 days and 14 hours left to go before we vote, the uncertainty is growing. This has less to do with having to select from the 55 contending political parties or the 23 aspiring presidential candidates, and more to do with what they are offering.

Putting aside for now all the flaws related to the elections – the key and critical question we are asking ourselves and each other, is: who do we vote for?

The more we look or question, the more we find the contenders wanting. Providing thoughtful insight, a friend explained that the opening up of the political playing field to new entrants has in fact underscored these deficiencies. The more the candidates speak up and speak out, the more discerning we voters are becoming. We are measuring their promises against the potential of turning words into actions.

Of course, there are those who are already decided.

Depending on who you are or where you are in the sphere of influence, there is more or less certainty. As people move away from the sphere of power and influence, the indecision grows. Their expectations and demands are higher.

The ruling elites and those close to them, or those expecting to benefit economically from them – they know. With unquestioning loyalty, their allegiance is committed to the current ruling party – Zanu PF. Many of those who are placed within the inner circle of opposition parties have also remained steadfast in their allegiance. And it goes without saying that the card-carrying members of all the different parties know exactly where they are placing their X on the ballot papers.

But the majority of activists, based in urban centres and rural communities, who fought hard to establish the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have had to decide which side of a split they are supporting.

Those who had committed to the MDC when it was first established, mostly because it offered an alternative to former president Robert Mugabe, are bereft. Many have joined the growing numbers of the undecided. Their uncertainty is in direct response to infighting within the MDC. This intra-party wrangling and fragmentation over the years has left people feeling betrayed. The split into the MDC Alliance, led by Nelson Chamisa, and the MDC-T, led by former deputy president of the party Thokozani Khupe, has spilled over into the courts as both sides claim ownership of the party name. This break-up splits the opposition vote even further.

Finally, there is a huge portion of Zimbabwe's society who don't fall into any of these groups. They want change – not in the form of a particular party – but in the form of real economic and social transformation, and they are willing to support anyone who can bring about that revolution.

They are hoping, praying for a proper makeover. A return to normal. A return to functional and functioning. People who want to wake up to clean and safe water when the taps are turned on. A constant supply of power without the threat of unexpected and sudden power cuts. Even though he is still too young to actually participate, my seven-year-old nephew echoes the sentiment of many when he says he will not vote until we have smooth roads.

The potential is here. Dedicated professionals in the field of healthcare, education, business, the sciences and the creative sector want to stay. So many friends who became economic refugees living in countries far and wide are looking to come back. They are coming home to vote, but have no idea how they can translate their ballot box decision into their desired dreams.

There are so many dreams, but I'd say that at the very top of the list is a yearning for an end to corruption and a fervent hope that these diverted resources can be rerouted into improving infrastructure. Across all discussion platforms – offline and online - this is an undisputed aspiration.

So this is my brief introduction. In the coming days I'll be adding more posts, to share new developments, initiatives, reactions and opinions, and continue to paint this picture of how the climate for freedom of expression is both affecting, and being affected by, these critical elections.

#MeToo: Gender & Politics

22 July, 2018 11:00 am CAT (Central Africa Time)

Early yesterday morning I was shown the Facebook page of a young woman who had posted a picture of herself holding a poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Facebook. Just above the photo she posted a message: 'Zimbabwe was born out of war'. She may have intended to provoke, but I doubt she expected the backlash she received.

The responses came fast and furious. The war of words escalated rapidly in tone and ferocity, as commentator after commentator insulted and attacked her choice. The most atrocious of these insults was the labelling of her as hure – a derogatory Shona word for prostitute.

In this election, hure has become a common term for the women contesting the elections or in positions of leadership. It does not matter what side of the political divide the women are on – the verbal abuse against them is on the rise. Women candidates are facing a barrage of abusive and aggressive insults online.

Harare Central candidate Linda Tsungirirai Masarira, who is attacked daily on her own Facebook page and other platforms, remains undeterred: “Hure is meant to demean us and break our spirit. Instead, it makes me stronger.”

During our phone conversation, Tsungirirai Masarira tells me she is wearing her now trademark red hoodie with #MeToo emblazoned in bold black print on the front and the word "HURE" on the back. She has been joined in her “hoodie hure protest” by human rights activist former minister and member of parliament Priscilla Misihairabwi Mushonga, and a small but growing group of young women.

One of the four female candidates contesting the Presidency in this year's election, Thokozani Khupe has also been a primary target of physical violence and ferocious verbal abuse. Just over two months ago, a belligerent crowd followed Khupe out of court chanting "Hure". Khupe heads a faction of the main opposition Movement for Democratic party, MDC-T, while Nelson Chamisa – seen as President Emmerson Mnangagwa's strongest contender – heads the MDC Alliance. The two rival camps had gone to court to contest ownership of the party name and symbols.

[VIDEO] Thokozani Khupe followed out of court by a belligerent crowd:

The latest target of verbal attacks and judgement is Judge Priscilla Chigumba, chairperson of the country's electoral management body – the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC). Chigumba has been vilified for an alleged adulterous relationship with a member of the ruling party.

Instead of focusing on the obvious element of conflict of interest, the condemnation of her affair leans heavily towards moral judgement. While a few critics are questioning her compromised integrity, the majority are using her “affair” as the yardstick measurement of her ability to head ZEC.

Such attacks have highlighted the double standard by which women are being measured. There are more questions about women candidates' marital status and less about their qualifications and leadership qualities.

While there has always been an outcry against the physical violence that women have dealt with during electoral cycles, I find the tepid response to the current escalation of verbal abuse both surprising and unexplainable.

Just a few days ago, the state media carried stories on the EU condemning the MDC Alliance for abusing female commissioners of ZEC – but the issue of the abuse and harassment was sidelined, and emphasis was turned instead on shortcomings of the MDC Alliance.

In short – These elections are a disturbing reflection, maybe even a microcosm, of the current sociological, political and economic landscape of Zimbabwe, where women are being sidelined and sidestepped in all sectors of society.

Looking for Salvation

26 July, 2018 9:00 am CAT (Central Africa Time)

The melodious sound of choirs from two different churches in my suburb wafts through the air. The repetitive pinging sound from my phone indicating an incoming Whatsapp message slices through the melodies. With 7 days and 35 hours before the elections, I am caught in that space in between – worrying I'll miss something significant versus being distracted by meaningless chatter.

What ended up catching my eye in the message were some outlandish remarks the writer attributed to Kofi Annan, who had just concluded a pre-election trip to Zimbabwe with an independent group of former global leaders called “The Elders”. The delegation included Annan, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Lakhdar Brahimi, former Algerian Foreign Minister and liberation struggle veteran.

The Elders was initially the brainchild of entrepreneur Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel, who then took the idea to the late Nelson Mandela. Mandela brought members together with support from Bishop Desmond Tutu and Graca Machel and launched The Elders in Johannesburg in July 2007. The aim was to create an independent group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights.

The remarks the writer had attributed to this prestigious group were dubious, to say the least. For example, it is highly improbable that The Elders would describe the country's electoral management body – the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) as “arrogant”. It was even more unlikely they would make disparaging remarks about the chairperson of ZEC, such as: “its regrettable that a chairperson of such an important body has proved to be dishonest, lack [sic] integrity, arrogant and morally unfit for any public office.” The poster had used a story that appeared in the weekend state paper – The Sunday Mail – and added deliberately slanted quotes misattributed to Annan.

Disinformation, yes. But, without condoning it, it is important to consider the context and motives behind this particular manipulation.

Conversations about topical issues in Zimbabwe, particularly on sociological, political, and economic subjects, tend to be ignited online. It is the place where people are most candid with their opinions and thoughts. Whatsapp is one of the most popular social media platforms in Zimbabwe, accounting for up to 44% of all mobile internet usage in the country.

This twisted action of altering a story highlights people's very real frustrations and discontent with ZEC and its partisan management of electoral issues. Since it was established in 2004 as a supposedly independent body, ZEC has been disinclined to separate itself from the interests of the ruling party, so it's no surprise that confidence in the body has waned over the years while the public mistrust has grown.

In just the last 10 days ZEC has fumbled its way through several embarrassing blunders, with perhaps the most damaging being the announcement by chairperson Justice Priscilla Chigumba, that hackers had gained access to ZEC's database. This serious cyber security breach was also acknowledged by the Minister of ICT and Cybercrime, but there was no explanation on how it would be resolved.

Just a few days later, registered voters received personalised messages on their mobile phones from candidates for their specific constituency from the ruling party, Zanu PF. There is no clearer evidence that the candidates had access to a database with voter information. My daughter, who was a recipient of one of these messages, was in her own words: “quite spooked.”

By her own admission, the chair of ZEC revealed that a request for the Biometric Voters Roll (BVR) to be audited by external chartered accountants was turned down. She said it was illegal, and that people were free to audit the roll at their own cost.

Then, on 12 July online platforms were awash with reports that police officers in Zimbabwe's second largest city – Bulawayo – had been forced to vote in the presence of senior officers. At first, ZEC denied it had taken place, and dismissed the reports as “hogwash and propaganda”. A police spokesperson then confirmed that police had voted – and this was later confirmed by ZEC's chief elections officer. Judge Chigumba explained that postal voting did not require observers or ballot boxes.

But it's the latest revelation by ZEC – that it has redesigned the voting booths to be transparent – that has opposition parties, civil society organisations and activists worried about the secrecy of the vote.

These flaws don't warrant calling off the election, but they do point to serious breaches.

At times like these, we Zimbabweans tend to pin our hopes on external bodies, external salvation, from groups such as The Elders and regional observer missions, wanting them to abandon their typically cautious and detached approach and to instead call out these obvious violations. We still hope – even though for the last two decades we looked to them for salvation, to no avail.

Case in point: the head of the African Union of Election Observer Mission, H.E. Hailemariam Desalegn, arrives in Harare just five days before polling day. This former Ethiopian head of state, who resigned in February of this year, had himself presided over a country in turmoil. Desalegn ruled over a country with one of the most restrictive media environments on the continent. Most broadcasting outlets were under state control, including the sole television broadcasting station, while only a few private stations were allowed to operate. Internet disruptions were common, especially during periods of social unrest. Political activists and journalists were frequently arrested and detained for extensive periods under the country's Anti Terrorism Proclamation – a law meant to stifle dissent, rather than protect the State against terrorism.

A perfect example of Zimbabwe looking outside the country for salvation, and pinning our hopes on the wrong people.

Reflections from the queue: Voting Day in Harare

Election Day: 30 July, 2018

Today's vote in Zimbabwe was a fervent hope for a better future, and a silent prayer of gratitude for those who sacrificed so much.

People were already milling around the polling stations when they opened at 7:00 am. Election officers from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission were on hand to answer questions and guide people. At my polling station there were three different queues: AA, AB, and B. After checking my registration confirmation, I was told to join queue AA. There were already 50 people in front of me.

The atmosphere is so very different from previous years, when there was always a sense of tension. People are relaxed. There is lively chatter coming from all directions. My 80-year-old neighbour and her sister-in-law hobbled along the path to cast their votes, and people graciously make way for them, allowing them to go the front of the queue.

People inevitably start chatting. It's the Zimbabwean way. Conversations begin pretty quickly whenever and wherever people are waiting – doctors' offices, banks. Without telling people who they are voting for, people start sharing their opinions, freely and openly. It is remarkable. Something I have never experienced before.

And what is equally remarkable is that people are here in such numbers – young and old, men and women. There are first-time voters like my daughter, as well as those who might have voted before but didn't, either because they felt their voice did not matter, or that it would not count.

Anticipating a lengthy wait, I ask the young man in front of me if he lives in the area. He tells me he used to attend the school where the polling station had been set up.

He talks about how important it is to vote, and how this vote, in particular, is special for him. He wants his voice heard, and more importantly, it is time for a change. He is weary of seeing people suffering.

He elaborates, telling me that he works in town, and that it is difficult to watch people travelling from distant places to the city centre – to the Post Office Savings Bank located just above the office where he works – and see people try to withdraw just $50 from their bank accounts, only to be told that it is not possible. Even more frustrating when out on the streets people openly trade bond notes for United States dollars at a nominal premium, yet it is difficult to get cash from the bank.

“One particular day, I heard a commotion upstairs. There was a great deal of noise coming from the bank just above. I went to check what was happening. I found out that an elderly man was told he could not withdraw money from his account as there was no cash. He had a stroke, and minutes later, he died. I was so shocked. It is difficult for old people to adjust to using mobile banking or to swipe. This is just wrong.”

His brother, who is just in front of him in the queue, works as a nurse at a private hospital. He is upset by the fact that people can't afford access to health care at medical facilities – either private health care facilities or at government hospitals. "Things just have to change, they have to shift,” he says.

He is also adamant about voting on this historic day. Both brothers lament the fact that the founding leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, is not alive for this historic moment. They say that they believe he would inevitably have won this election – the first in which Robert Mugabe is not contesting the Presidency.

The young woman behind me travelled from Johannesburg, where she is based. Hers is the story of so many people who have come home to vote for this landmark election.

I ask her: Will she stay in Zimbabwe, if the result of the vote is what she is hoping for? She smiles, and hesitates before she replies. She says she isn't sure. It will depend on the changes. Many of these people have put down new roots in the countries they have gone to. They want to come back, but only if there is a strong promise of a better future.

The young teacher behind her wants to see a united Zimbabwe. A country where his dreams and ambitions can be realized.

When I mention that the change they are all looking for will not be easy, they stop me before I can complete my thought. They know. They know that moving the country forward will take time, but they are voting for change. They are pinning their hopes on new leadership to rebuild Zimbabwe, so that it can realise its potential, and become once again “the breadbasket of Africa”.

48 hours later

1 August 2018 23:30 CAT (Central Africa Time)

The polls closed on Monday evening, two days ago now. Since then, we find ourselves in a situation that is developing – deteriorating, really – so quickly that it is hard to record anything that makes sense or provides clarity.

Tension is high, and Zimbabweans are ridden with anxiety, reeling from the announcement that three people were shot and killed during protests, earlier in the day.

In just 48 hours after polling stations closed on Monday evening, the mood and atmosphere in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, has shifted dramatically. What started as a peaceful voting process became a violent clash between supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and riot police. Within hours, the riot police were joined by armed forces using live ammunition and shooting into the crowds. MDC supporters were reacting to the announcement of results that indicated that the ruling party Zanu PF had in fact won an over two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

The juxtaposition of this riot, just a few hundred metres away from the hotel banquet room where an observer mission was commending Zimbabwe on conducting a peaceful election, is just one of the many ironies of this landmark election. All that stood between the protesters and the hotel was the bolted gate and a metal railing fence, behind which stood a row of riot police standing guard – with water cannon trucks parked on the side.

Much of the news of events and even election results over the last two days has been relayed via social media platforms, and in such an explosive situation it has been difficult to separate fact from rumour.

The situation has been further exacerbated by the protracted manner in which election results were announced. Unofficial and unverified results were overwhelmingly accepted as accurate in the absence of official announcements. The head of the opposition party, Nelson Chamisa, sent out a tweet claiming an overwhelming win for the MDC – a message that spread like wildfire. Online conversations on various chat groups accused the MDC leadership of celebrating immaturely and prematurely. When official results trickled in, indicating the ruling party Zanu PF had in fact gained a significant majority, the situation inevitably imploded.

I am hearing just now that the Minster of Home Affairs, Obert Mpofu, has declared that the army will be deployed as long as this situation prevails.

I can only end today's post with... To be continued.

Hope turns to despair

20 August 2018

It's been over two weeks since my last blog entry. It has been difficult to process events as the situation here in Zimbabwe transformed from one of relative peace and the broadening of civic space to one deteriorating rapidly with fatal consequences.

A relatively peaceful voting day allowed voters to develop a false sense of security. There was a sense of calm which slowly grew into enthusiastic hope over the course of the day. However, this was followed by a day of anxiety as citizens followed the results being announced by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). When the ZEC announced a two-thirds majority in parliament for the ruling ZANU-PF party, the deep sense of frustration felt by opposition supporters spilled out into the streets.

Many people responded with initial disbelief and then horror as the news first trickled in and then buzzed across social media. An ad hoc protest against the announced results in downtown Harare had a tragically shocking ending, with six dead at the hands of the military.

This was after repeated assurances to Zimbabweans from President Emmerson Mnangagwa that the 2018 elections would be free and fair.

After all, there was some reason for hope. Although many structural defects in the electoral landscape remained in place, there were clearly at least attempts being made to change things for the better. Although this tweaking of the electoral landscape may only have been for the optics, at least there were some noticeable differences from previous elections held under Robert Mugabe.

For the first time in two decades, international observers that had once been banned from the country were allowed in, including those from the Commonwealth and the European Union. Opposition parties were allowed to move freely and safely and to hold large campaign rallies, with relatively little interference from the authorities. Even the friction between the police and the media had diffused slightly. It was all a far cry from the Mugabe era of violence and intimidation.

All that changed dramatically two days after we voted.

A report by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO forum contained in the August 13 edition of the Legal Monitor newsletter contends: "the Zimbabwe Republic Police were in control of the situation when military vehicles were observed driving into the central business district. Forum observers witnessed soldiers randomly firing live bullets and beating up bystanders who were not involved in the protest. Six people lost lives and about 35 others were seriously injured."

Overnight the citizenry was subdued and the crackdown on opposition activists began. The army moved into highly populated areas assaulting citizens. "Shop owners were ordered to shut their businesses while those found in beer halls were randomly assaulted." There were reports of people being abducted and tortured. One woman from an area several hundred kilometres from the capital reported that she was raped by assailants, while a couple reported that their 9-month old child was assaulted and died a day later.

The promise of space opening for the media also faded fast. Two journalists were assaulted during the riot on August 2, while another journalist was detained by the army. Zimbabwe's image was further tainted when media were temporarily barred access to an MDC Alliance press conference called for by the party leader Nelson Chamisa.

Chamisa was also allegedly threatened, and fellow party member Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe's former Finance Minister, says he was forced to seek political asylum in Zambia following an alleged assassination attempt. He was rapidly deported back to Zimbabwe.

By now, the initial sense of disbelief and horror has turned into despair. The optimism felt by many Zimbabweans before the election, that the changing landscape represented more than a cosmetic facelift, has now turned into hopelessness.

Regional and international focus on Zimbabwe is once again focused on the need for democratic reforms. The Constitutional Court challenge of the presidential election results by MDC Alliance Leader Nelson Chamisa is sure to place Zimbabwe's electoral system and the independence of its judiciary under the spotlight.

The Constitutional Court, Zimbabwe's highest, is due to hear the challenge on August 22. In the meantime, the inauguration of Emmerson Mnangagwa as President of Zimbabwe has, perhaps surprisingly, been suspended pending the outcome of the challenge.

Zimbabweans on both sides - for and against the constitutional challenge - now wait with bated breath for the outcome of the court proceedings.

Although this is my final entry on our Zimbabwe Election Watch blog, IFEX will continue to monitor the situation closely as it develops. You can keep in touch with developments on this website, and by following us on Twitter @IFEX. You can also follow our local member @MISAZimbabwe as well as @DewaMavhinga who is covering the situation for Human Rights Watch.

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