THE influence of the security structure in the electoral process has already been felt following the improper statements made by individuals commanding three key areas of the security forces.
The pronouncements of General Constantine Chiwenga (armed forces), retired Major Paradzai Zimondi (prisons) and Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri (police) may have tipped the balance in favour of President Robert Mugabe at the expense of his three rivals in the race for the presidency.
Their actions have an intimidating effect on the voters and, therefore, affect the fairness of the election. But, crucially, they raise serious questions about the aftermath of the election, should one of the opposition leaders defy the odds and win.
This will test Southern African Development Community (Sadc) leaders who, so far, have given Mugabe the benefit of doubt. They, surely, ought to recognise that the perceptions created by such statements are more likely to have a negative impact on the election process.
The statements create disincentives for the free expression of will and instead cause people to vote for self-preservation. The African leaders who have so far stood by on the basis of â€œquiet diplomacyâ€ must surely acknowledge the noisy aggression coming from the security structures in Zimbabwe.
But an even more crucial question is: what will Sadc heads of state do if the opposition wins and security forces carry out their threat of what will effectively be a military coup?
If history is an indicator, the southern African region has never looked kindly at coups. Even the mild Nelson Mandela was forced by the spectre of military rule in Lesotho in1998 to send armed forces to protect civilian rule. President Mbeki was so close to power that he must have been involved in that decision-making process. But this one, if it were to happen in Zimbabwe, will be the real test of his â€œquiet diplomacyâ€.
Sadc needs to act against such improper and unethical conduct. It is inadequate to simply await the outcome of the process when it is clear that there is improper influence being exerted on the electorate.
Principle 2.1.3 of the Sadc Principles and Guidelines for Conducting Elections requires â€œpolitical toleranceâ€, while Principle 2.1.9 requires â€œacceptance and respect of the election results by political parties proclaimed to have been free and fair by the competent national electoral authorities in accordance with the law of the landâ€.
Further, Principle 7.5 requires a member state to â€œtake all necessary measures and precautions to prevent the perpetration of fraud, rigging or any other illegal practices throughout the whole electoral process, in order to maintain peace and securityâ€, while Principle 7.7 requires the provision of adequate security to all parties participating in the election.
The effect of the Zimbabwean security headsâ€™ statement is to violate all of these principles, in particular the lack of political tolerance and the threat of withdrawal of security to the opposition candidates, should one of them they win the election.
But there is another fear arising from these statements which relates to the likely reaction of a new government should one of the opposition leaders succeed against these odds.
Although they will never say so while still in opposition and therefore courting voters, it is likely that the first and more important priority for a new government will be its security. An insecure government is more likely to be concerned with its own protection against forces bent on destabilising it. While it is natural that the government will engage in acts of self-preservation, the trouble is that it is also likely to adopt tactics that may not be dissimilar from those of its predecessor.
Our recent history tells us that human rights are often the first casualties of government insecurity and paranoia. Contrary to earlier undertakings to promote human rights and remove repressive legislation, the reality is that faced with threats of insecurity (real or imagined), a ruling party is more likely to resort to the same methods previously employed against it when it was in opposition.
This much happened in the aftermath of Zimbabweâ€™s Independence in 1980 when the new Mugabe government retained security and emergency laws that had been used by the Smith regime. The main reason given was to safeguard state security in the face of perceived and real threats.
The government felt threatened not only by the then hostile South African regime but also by disgruntled members of the opposition. It is now argued that many of there fears were exaggerated and used largely to provide grounds to silence opponents.
That situation led to large-scale human rights violations especially in the Midlands and Matabeleland. Many people, including erstwhile revolutionary colleagues like Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku, were incarcerated under the stringent security laws. Even the embedded local media was largely unable to report on these grave matters at the time.
There are, plainly, lessons to be learned from this period.
What the three leaders of the security forces have done is to provide potential grounds for the maintenance of stringent security laws even if there is a new government after March 29. Their statements have given rise to fears of a potential coup against a non-Mugabe government and that is a serious threat against an elected government.
Such insecurity will pose great dangers to the people because it will result in the suspension of human rights and perpetuate repression. Here Sadc and the rest of the African community will have a big role to play to quell any threats to a new elected government. It will not only benefit Zimbabweans but will send a clear statement that unlawful rule by security forces will not be countenanced in the region.
But Sadc needs to be more assertive even at this stage, to demonstrate that it does not tolerate the interference of the security forces in the electoral process. Its silence on this matter would amount to tacit condonation of improper behaviour.Â
Any new government itself will, however, need to take a measured response. It can learn from the errors of the post-Independence government which overreacted and caused mayhem which even Mugabe has acknowledged as a â€œmoment of madnessâ€.
In this regard, civil society organisations concerned with human rights will have their hands full even if there is a new government. If anything, there will be need for greater vigilance in respect of a new government.
And this is why they need to retain and assert their independence from the political parties vying for power. Any kind of endorsement, as others seem to have done recently, is likely to leave them compromised. They say when you set a trap in the mud, you should not complain when your trousers get dirty.
l Dr Magaisa is based at the University of Kent Law School and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com