Confronting poll violence head-on

Maxwell Madzikanga

THERE seems to be broad agreement among certain political quarters that the power sharing arrangement in Zimbabwe has been but a national disaster. This is a view regularly articulated at home and abroad even by some of the key leaders in the coalition arrangement, the Government of National Unity.
However, despite its seemingly dismal performance, the coalition government has helped prevent further politically-motivated violence, stabilised the country economically and prevented inevitable national implosion.
Zimbabwe witnessed improvement in a number of key health, social and other development indicators. From the start, the coalition partners appreciated the arrangement was transitional; a short-term agreement to enable the country to enjoy respite from some of its challenges.
However, the transitional arrangement should not be used to stifle Zimbabwe’s return to full democratic normality. One of the critical ingredients to the return to full democracy is prevention and mitigation of politically-motivated electoral violence in all its varied forms before and after elections.
Factors that initiate, fuel and maintain the vicious cycle of political violence are multifaceted, structural, intersecting and systemic. For the coalition arrangement to come to a sustainable end, the country needs to conduct credible elections within a reasonable timeframe.
However, elections are by their nature an uncertain and competitive political process. When political stakes are high, as in the case of Zimbabwe, politically-motivated violence tends to dominate the electoral process. The political landscape in the country, before and after Independence, has largely remained fraught with intolerance and hostility to diverse political opinions and free debate.
Before Independence the Rhodesian armed forces, law enforcement apparatus, civil service and all state machinery were highly partisan and rallied blindly behind the Rhodesian Front.
On the other hand, during the war the key liberation movements experienced an ugly “struggles within the struggle” scenario that unfortunately spilled into post-Independent Zimbabwe. The ugly consequence of this intolerance has done more harm to the country and has served but one purpose — sullying the sacrifices of our heroic freedom fighters.
Political violence leads to loss of life, property, and “fracturIsation” of families, communities and permanent disruption to traditional safety nets. Despite the ugly consequences of political violence, it seems Zimbabwe is not adequately prepared to deal with another potential wave of electorally-motivated violence.
Political violence in general and electoral violence in particular is predominantly a reflection of widespread poverty and lack of social services, catastrophic unemployment levels and depleted trust in public institutions.
In the past, political violence in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa involved use of brute physical force, threats and intimidation. The violence tended to be largely but not exclusively, targeted at potential candidates, electoral officials or objects of the electoral process like ballot boxes and facilities. It also entailed harassment, breaking up of opposition meetings and denying smaller political parties access to state resources.
Currently, for most politicians in the coalition government, politics and contestation for political office is largely a life and death situation.
As some analysts have observed, violence during elections, whether perpetrated by the incumbent, opponents, or both, is a clear sign of weak institutionalisation of the African state and fragmented identity of the nation.
Violence is perpetrated by both the incumbent political leaders as well as by oppositional actors. It is not the proportion or degree that matters, but the fact that in Zimbabwe, for example, violence has been and continues to be promoted covertly and overtly by all political actors.  An impartial, pluralistic and capacitated media would play an important role in critically analysing political statements and exposing politicians salivating for hate language.
It is most unfortunate that key political actors in the country seem to have perfected their talents for using violence-packed language; language that promotes disharmony, hatred and enmity.
Political violence in Zimbabwe is initiated and galvanised particularly by the political elite who want to hold on or attain political power whatever the cost.
Zimbabweans of divergent political persuasions should look forward to a time when electoral violence cannot be used as a weapon to gain power or when political disputes would be settled amicably.
The state has the responsibility of protecting all its citizens regardless of their political views. Police need to always act in a non-partisan and professional manner by avoiding selective application of the law.
Violence weakens national cohesion, increases national inequalities and disparities, fuels suspicion, degrades the reputations of citizens at home and abroad, depletes national pride and innovativeness, feeds braindrain, widens the horizons of impunity and ultimately depresses voter turnout as well as participation in democratic processes.
Paul van Tongeren and Kai Brand Jacobson provide an interesting framework useful in enhancing understanding, preventing and mitigating electoral violence in Zimbabwe. Critical ingredients of the framework are the need to ensure that any underlying causes of electoral violence are mapped. The mapping should begin at least 24 to 48 months before elections. They also suggest that at all levels in a country, there should be a time-tested, coherent infrastructure for peace and mediation.
The two electoral experts say social media should be harnessed with a view to raising national awareness on the cost of violence, its long-term impact as well as reporting incidents of electoral irregularities as they occur. They recommend that adequate and comprehensive electoral training should be provided to members of the police and other security services to enable them to respond non-violently to incidents of political violence.
The role of law enforcement agencies before, during and after elections is to prevent violence, provide intelligence and investigate such incidences whenever they occur and to apprehend offenders and hand them over for prosecution.
The judiciary needs to be effective, impartial and reliable. To combat impunity, the judiciary should not only be seen to be dispensing “predictable justice”, but should also work in sync with other state organs, civic actors, national level actors and even international judiciary mechanisms.
The electoral management body should be robust and prompt in dealing with electoral complaints and act in an impartial manner. Simultaneously, the question of impunity has to be aggressively tackled at all levels beginning with leaders of all political parties, candidates and other stakeholders, cascading to the lowest levels.
The approach to permanently dealing with political violence should entail multi-agency, multi-sectoral and multi-level strategies. Dealing with political violence without dealing with other forms of violence endemic in our schools, institutions of higher learning, families and communities would be a waste of scarce national resources.
Raising violence awareness and training should be mainstreamed in the school curriculum, training of armed forces, the police and all tertiary institutions so that there is a ubiquitous understanding of violence, its forms, manifestations and mitigation. This is how violence can be stemmed and stamped out.
Madzikanga is a Zimbabwean academic. He writes in his personal capacity. E-mail:


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