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Zimbabweans Vote Under the Shadow of Mugabe

Zimbabwe’s general elections were held amidst delays and acts of violence, including the brutal killing of opposition activist, Tinashe Chitsunge.

Words: Obiora Ikoku
Pictures: Tanner Marquis

On Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, Zimbabweans trooped to the polls to elect a new president, members of parliament and councilors. The election is the ninth since the country’s independence in 1980 and the first since the death of long-time ruler, Robert Mugabe. 

“Mugabe’s ghost continues to hover above everything in Zimbabwe” explains Professor David Moore, the author of the widely-acclaimed book, “Mugabe’s Legacy: Coups, Conspiracies, and the Conceits of Power in Zimbabwe,” which charts the rise and fall of Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), all the way to Zimbabwe’s tenuous chaos today. Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980 at the head of a liberation struggle against white minority rule in the former Rhodesia. He crashed out 37 years later in 2017, at the age of 93, during a factional feud in his ZANU-PF party and was replaced by his former Vice President and right-hand man, Emmerson Mnangagwa, 80, who is now seeking a second term at the poll on Wednesday. 

Although 11 candidates are on the ballot, the election is seen as a rematch between Mnangagwa and his main challenger, Nelson Chamisa, a 45-year-old lawyer and pastor of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC). The two were also the frontrunners in the last presidential race in 2018. 

“The 2023 elections are competitive at all levels, most notably for the presidency. A high percentage of the eligible population has registered to vote and, if the past is an indicator, then turnout should be relatively high” Larry Garber, an election observation expert who observed Zimbabwe’s 1985 and 2018 elections, told Inkstick. A total of 6.6 million registered voters, out of a population of 16 million, are taking part in the voting across the 12,340 polling stations in the country’s 10 provinces although there are fears of voters’ suppression marring the poll.

Delays and Allegations of Rigging

There are also reports of delays in several polling stations across the country. As early as 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 23, voters went out to polling stations but several voters were still waiting to vote at the close of poll late in the evening. In a statement, Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission said some of the late openings were caused by “delays in printing of ballot papers arising from numerous court challenges,” adding that this was the case in Harare and Bulawayo provinces. Although polls have officially closed and counting has started, the electoral commission has extended polls until Thursday, Aug. 24, in areas where polling stations opened late. 

“This is a clear case of voter suppression, a classic case of Stone Age, antiquated, analog rigging,” an indignant Nelson Chamisa, told a news conference in the capital yesterday. 

The weeks leading to the election were filled with tension and violence including the grisly murder of Tinashe Chitsunge, a member of the CCC. Chitsunge was reportedly stoned to death in the afternoon of Aug. 3, 2023, after he and other party supporters were ambushed by suspected members of the country’s ruling party on their way to a campaign rally west of the capital, Harare. 

This is in addition to the arrest of activists, blocking of dozens of opposition campaign events and the passing of a law that outlaws criticism of the country’s government. Also known as the “Patriotic Bill,” the new law contains a clause that in severe cases imposes long jail sentences and the death penalty for anyone guilty of acts that damage the “sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe.” But critics have lashed out at the government describing the new law as a measure aimed at silencing dissent.  

“Beyond those who might actually be charged under the new law is the chilling effect that this will have on free speech. As free speech is an essential feature of a democracy, the new law appears to be an increasingly blatant means of adopting repressive governing tactics in Zimbabwe while continuing to claim the mantle of democracy by holding elections” Joseph Siegle told Inkstick.  Siegle is the Director of Research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC and is an adjunct Senior Research Scholar with the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. He believes that Zimbabwe’s electoral process is neither free nor fair and accuses the ruling party of dominating the media landscape, which enables it to shape the narratives around the election.

Battered Economy

One of the issues for voters in this election is the state of the country’s economy which is once again, experiencing sky-high inflation. When Mugabe was removed in 2017, President Mnangagwa promised a new era for Zimbabwe. But five years later, Zimbabwe’s economy is yet to recover from the Mugabe years which saw a host of rash economic policies including the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme and disastrous land reforms that brought the economy to its knees. 

Whatever the outcome, the 2023 poll has shined light on ZANU-PF’s blood-soaked legacy in Zimbabwe.

“Some would say it is worse since 2017 because the deposition of Mugabe has not changed anything really. Life is not getting better for ordinary people” Moore observed. In 2022, the Zimbabwe dollar depreciated by 521% against the US dollar, triggering an increase in inflation to 285% in June of the same year. This has precipitated fear of the country’s slide back to hyperinflation. Banknote shortages, a symbol of the Mugabe-era financial ruin, remain unresolved while remittances valued at $1.4 billion in 2021, continue to be a lifeline for many households and small businesses across the country.

“The Zimbabwean economy continues to be very fragile. The reliance on printing money and quasi-fiscal operations keeps inflation at triple-digit levels. This has contributed to the declining GDP growth, deterioration in the value of the currency, and very limited investment. Nearly half of the population is in poverty. In short, the highly patronage-based management of the economy by ZANU-PF by the Mnangagwa government continues to contribute to greater inequality and high levels of economic volatility” Siegle told Inkstick.  

Together with deteriorating physical infrastructure as can be seen in the poor quality of the country’s roads and the constant power cuts, government failure to address the multiple economic and social needs of the population has led to a significant out-migration of Zimbabwe professionals particularly to South Africa. The country also ranks low in the corruption index recently released by Transparency International, indicating high levels of systemic corruption in public office. Zimbabwe’s endemic and structural corruption was the subject of a recent four-part Al Jazeera series “Gold Mafia.” 

“The ease with which gold was smuggled out of the country, with a wink and a nod from government officials, is indicative of a widespread problem, which is draining the country’s abundant resources. Addressing the corruption issue should be a priority for any government in Zimbabwe, but after so many years in power ZANU-PF leaders control the state institutions and benefit from the status quo” Garber noted. 

Blood-Soaked Legacy

As counting starts in areas where voting has been concluded, all bets are off as to what the outcome might be. In 2018 during the first post-Mugabe harmonized elections, Mnangagwa narrowly avoided a runoff by polling 50.8% as against Chamisa’s 44.3%.

Whatever the outcome, the 2023 poll has shined light on ZANU-PF’s blood-soaked legacy in Zimbabwe. For over four decades, the ZANU-PF has managed to retain the levers of power in Zimbabwe through patronage and sheer brute force. Moore believes that Mnangagwa has been associated with every episode of this process. “As key figures in the country’s liberation war of the 60s and 70s, Mnangagwa and Mugabe were two birds of a feather right from the beginning,” Moore told Inkstick. Nicknamed “The Crocodile” because of his political shrewdness, Mnangagwa was jailed by the White minority government under Prime Minister Ian Smith in 1965. “He did not join Mugabe in the camps until 1978 after he left jail for blowing up a rail track near Fort Victoria, now Masvingo. He was sort of a baggage hand man, always in the background and handling issues of threats and so on for Mugabe” he added.

Mnangagwa is often accused of an array of human rights violations, ranging from the Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s, Operation Murambatsvina that violently cleared slums across the country in 2005, and the deadly election violence of 2008. “20, 000 people killed, many many more raped and tortured during the Gukurahundi massacre. Mnangagwa was in charge of national security at this time” Moore added. The British turned a blind eye to the massacre orchestrated by Mugabe because it helped eliminate the communist-inclined Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) which reportedly had links with the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa and the Soviet Union. 

“The current ZANU-PF government is largely a continuation of the Mugabe era. Indeed, the coup that ousted Mugabe was aimed at preempting an internal ZANU-PF power struggle and reconstituting the power structures that Mugabe had built up over the years. Perhaps the most notable difference is that the military has taken a more openly political role under Mnangagwa than they played under Mugabe” Siegle added.

According to Zimbabwe’s electoral system, a candidate will only be declared winner of the presidential poll if they win more than 50% of the vote. If at the end of the elections no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, a run-off will be held on Oct. 2 between the top two contenders, a development which some believe may spell chaos across the country. 

“During the runoff in 2008, there were hundreds of people killed with thousands fleeing from their homes. It was a mini-Gukurahundi” Moore added. 

Obiora Ikoku

Obiora Ikoku is a freelance journalist and activist from Lagos, Nigeria. He writes about social movements and the geopolitics of Africa’s relations with the rest of the world.

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