Dialogue To Enshrine Ethnic Minority Rights

WRITING in an online newspaper last week, president of the MDC, Auther Mutambara, underscored the need for a national constitution that we can all be proud of as Zimbabweans.

 

He also rightly observed that such a constitution must be borne out of an all-inclusive process of national dialogue.

While this expression of political will from one of the potential leaders of our country is certainly encouraging to civil society and ordinary citizens, it is imperative to stress that this perceived participatory process must also give all citizens an opportunity to open up and freely articulate their fundamental and deep seated concerns peculiar to them as a gender, race, ethnicity or even region so as to avoid a vicious circle of conflicts caused by inequalities deliberately created by visionless ethnocentric state policies.

Taboo

While some of these issues have been addressed in various ways in the past, Zanu PF’s 28 years of monolithic and polarising politics has rendered the last two taboo topics which one cannot raise without risking a bolt of lightning of intolerance from some fellow citizens.

This is why all fair-minded Zimbabweans hope that the current talks will yield an honest, deep and introspective national dialogue that will not only be an opportunity to test our political maturity as citizens and fledgling democracy, but also a chance for the nation to boldly confront and address those deeply entrenched historical and political problems wholeheartedly exacerbated through word and deed by the colonial and post-independence political leadership.

The fact of the matter is that as Zimbabwe today tries to deal with the challenge of bridging political polarisation caused by the ruling elite in the last ten years, there is another threatening political undercurrent of potential ethnic polarisation which urgently demands the attention of all responsible and well meaning citizens.

While this problem has been mischaracterised in various ways by some radical writers and activists, it is clearly an ideological construction rooted in Zanu PF’s politics of sectarianism.

This brand of politics then found eloquent execution in the state policies of ethnic cleansing, economic marginalisation and internal colonisation with the overall aim of undermining the economic independence and cultural identity of minorities.

Yet the debate for most progressive citizens is no longer about whether ethnic minorities were undermined by Zanu PF’s politics, but about what pro-active measures the nation needs to take to solve this problem and help the state to wake up and catch up with its citizens who have always stood for the politics of tolerance, equity, empathy, and inclusion.

Specifically, the following need to be addressed by the new Government of National Unity (GNU) as part of its agenda of reforming the state and restoring individual and group rights of all citizens in Zimbabwe, including those of ethnic minorities.

In his article, Professor Mutambara talked about the need for healing the wounds of the last four months.

However, it is public knowledge now that the wounds of some minorities or sections of our society go far beyond the recent political cleansing that characterised the last presidential poll.

The nation cannot afford to sweep the Gukurahundi atrocities under the carpet because they represent an unprecedented and unforgettable darkest hour in our history and politicians must awaken to the fact that their continued avoidance of the matter poses serious threats to the peace and stability of the nation for future generations.

The atrocities cannot be treated as “any other business” in the item list of issues that face the nation today.

Lost opportunity

If the issue is avoided again in the prospective national dialogue, this will have been a lost opportunity for all Zimbabweans.

Any meaningful national dialogue has to be thematically deep, wide and diverse in order to eliminate all areas of potential conflict in future.

For minorities, national dialogue must yield a constitution that clearly recognises their right to political participation so as to be able to form associations and political parties that articulate their unique problems without being demonised as ethnic enclaves by the state or other competing groups.

It must be a constitution that also protects their rights to language and cultural identity so that the media and other cultural industries will be mandated to develop organisational policies that address their needs in terms of employment, content production and public participation. Last but not least, it must be a constitution that empowers the state to adopt appropriate legislative and institutional measures not only in the promotion of minority identities, but also their participation and proportionate representation in parliament, public bodies, the army and police force.

These demands are not far fetched or misplaced.

Zimbabwe is a signatory to international laws that obligate states to protect their minorities such as International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 27), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 1) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Ethnic and Linguistic Minorities (1992).

Minorities in Zimbabwe therefore have a right to lobby for the respect of their rights in the national constitution so that their participation in national institutions is prioritised by all future governments.

Autonomy

For minority Zimbabweans, a good constitution must create a rock solid foundation for parliament to enact laws that prevent their discrimination in land and property ownership, government loans, education opportunities, employment in key government sectors, housing, and key public media jobs.

The government must be able to pass laws that create independent ethnic and race equality bodies modelled along the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland or the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

Such a body must obviously have very effective investigative, regulatory, and enforcement powers so that in can arbitrate on cases of ethnic discrimination by anyone including the government itself.

With appropriate laws and institutional mechanisms, Zimbabwe will be the first African country to have a bloodless revolution that will confront state engineered tribalism and mitigate the impact of this social evil on meritocracy and national development.

It will also be one of the first countries to implement constitutional and legal reforms that amount to long term conflict prevention mechanisms.

This will also help the country to avoid situations like Darfur, Rwanda, Somalia and Tibet where state marginalisation of ethnic minorities culminated in ethnic clashes and national despair and underdevelopment.

In Durfur, years of discrimination have failed to prevent the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit minorities’ to launch armed resistance that has undermined peace and stability in Sudan whereas in Somalia tribal war lords operating clan based militias have undermined the state and the rule of law.

Recently, we saw Tibetans run amock and destroy businesses owned by the Han Chinese ethnic groups who where targetted as beneficiaries of the Chinese government policy of ethnic discrimination.

All these problems had been left by the respective governments to ferment and create political fissures that are now threatening to tear those nations apart.

In some of these cases, minorities are beginning to call for
secession, a problem that could have been avoided had the governments implemented non-discriminatory and inclusive policies for all their people.

Countries that do not fear democracy have even granted autonomy to their minority groups in their constitutions.

Instructive cases include Australia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

Autonomy is increasingly per-ceived not in terms of full independence or secession, but internal democratic arrangements within the nation-state so that ethnic minorities enjoy some level of freedom from the centre.

This minimal independence is meant to butress bottom-up initiatives in governance and development as opposed to the top-down trickling of leftovers from central government.

Countries that have experimented on this, have proved that autonomy is not a threat to national unity, but instead a foundation to peaceful co-existence and unity in diversity of the citizens.

*Dr Last Moyo writes from Wales, UK. He can be contacted at lastmoyo@yahoo.com

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