Comment – 29 Feb

POLICE Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri has warned Zimbabweans against engaging in politically motivated violence. He said this on Tuesday. This was a follow-up to a march by the ZRP at the weekend to raise public awareness against violence.

Public order not about shooting

This is a worthy initiative by the police, although it should be embarrassing to any self-respecting Zimbabwean. It has however become necessary to mount this campaign given that elections in Zimbabwe have become synonymous with violence, which is a shame.

Chihuri said the police force had adequate resources to deal with any acts of violence related to the harmonised March elections, including the use of “full force” and firearms if this became necessary.

“The use of full force by the police the world over has always attracted criticism, and is deliberately exaggerated most of the times for a purpose,” said Chihuri. “This is a sticky point so designed to undermine and discredit the entire electoral process.”

We are not going to apportion blame about who is responsible for violence. Our wish is for as free and fair elections as is possible under the current polarised and badly poisoned political atmosphere.

A decision having already been taken that the elections will be held on March 29, and with all political parties already hard at work on their campaigns towards that deadline, it would be foolhardy of anyone to imagine elections under any other conditions.

The best that we can do for our part is to appeal for a sense of maturity and responsibility among all those involved in the electoral process and in the elections themselves — from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, politicians and their political parties to the police. It behoves the ZEC to be seen to be as impartial as is humanly possible in the execution of its duties.

This will avoid unnecessary finger-pointing and recriminations with those who already view it as a partisan body. We shall give them the benefit of the doubt.

The police’s efforts in ensuring peaceful elections can only benefit from the behaviour of the different political parties and their candidates. It would be remiss of us to expect the police to maintain peace while political leaders use inflammatory language and hate speech in the course of their campaigns.

Extolling parties’ degrees in violence is as bad as glorifying the mayhem which followed the announcement of the Kenyan election results last month. Those responsible for these irresponsible utterances should be personally held accountable for the consequences regardless of which political formation they belong to.

Then there is the police itself and law enforcement. Gratuitous threats to shoot people are as bad as the threats of street protests and violence by those who lose elections. The police can only hope to get as much public respect as it deserves in terms of how impartial it is seen to be in applying the law.

Once the police are seen to partially enforce a law already as discredited as the Public Order and Security Act, they can only bring dishonour on themselves.

It starts with the way the law is applied regarding public meetings, gatherings and rallies. All parties must be seen and feel that they are being treated equally. The conduct of the police must be beyond reproach, a tall order in such a charged atmosphere but one that must be executed with honour.

It is in this respect that we appeal for maximum restraint in the use of “full force and arms” as threatened by Chihuri. An unfortunate incident in trying to control a rowdy crowd disgruntled at the electoral outcome might turn out to be just the spark to trigger a holocaust.

In his address on Tuesday, Chihuri warned: “We are not deterred by the utterances of hate from the Western world concerning this issue (use of force) as it is in their interest to discredit all who are not their puppets in their quest to defend their interests.”

This is obviously a very loaded statement going well beyond professional policing for law and order. Using “full force” to enforce law and order and to protect life and property are different from applying the same force to defend a particular political system.

This becomes a matter of personal discretion by the officer in charge on whether a grievance is genuine or it is meant to serve foreign interests. This compromises the role of the police and opens it to charges of partiality towards certain causes. That is not what public order should be about.

Therefore the success or failure of next month’s elections will very much depend on the role played by all the stakeholders with their competing interests.

These interests must however at the end of the day defer to the overarching national interest. Nobody should have a greater stake in the outcome of next month’s elections than those Zimbabweans who will vote to choose their leaders and decide their country’s future.