HomeLettersFighting democratic regression in Zim

Fighting democratic regression in Zim

Zimbabwe has been grappling with a transition whose primary aim is to return the country to democratic legitimacy premised on the rule of law through a credible electoral process and outcome.

After the country’s electoral and political institutions failed to administer a credible electoral process in 2008, the inclusive government through the Global Political Agreement (GPA) was supposed to address both software and hardware issues attendant to the holding of credible future elections under the supervision of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and African Union (AU).

There are still disagreements dating back to 2009 over the role of the security apparatus in political and electoral matters, democratisation of the public media and the prevailing culture of impunity.

The constitutional review process, the role of electoral institutions such as the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) and the Registrar-General’s office, and the partisan nature of the personnel in these institutions need to be audited.

Both the administrative and environmental issues related to the electoral process and, most critically, the restoration of law and order in Zimbabwe are glaringly absent yet the party which created the problems — Zanu PF — has the temerity to call  for elections without reforms. The argument that reforms must come after elections is simply untenable in this environment and anybody who thinks they can convince Zimbabweans on that issue is clearly taking them for granted. Given our recent history and painful experiences over disputed elections, people don’t want to go down that route again.

In trying to understand the strategy of Zanu PF and its security establishment hardliners, it is important to appreciate what human rights scholars describe as the “spiral model” in the study of regime transitions.

The spiral model builds upon work on transnational advocacy networks in the field of human rights such Amnesty International, local groups like the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), ZimRights and Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition whose activities are meant to bring democratic rule and respect for human rights in norm-violating states such as Zimbabwe.

Through the work of such organisations, a boomerang pattern of influence exists when domestic human rights groups in a repressive state such as Zimbabwe bypass, during crises, the state and directly search out international allies to try to bring pressure from outside.

National opposition groups, civic bodies and social movements link up with transnational advocacy networks and inter-governmental organisations who then convince international human rights organisations, donor institutions and powerful states through the UN system and regional blocks such as Sadc and the AU to pressure norm-violating states like Zimbabwe.

Crisis in Zimbabwe’s Coalition’s regional advocacy office in South Africa serves this process in the current situation in Zimbabwe.
There are five critical stages that a regime in crisis goes through before it relinquishes political power during a transitional process such as the one that Zimbabwe is currently going through.

Democratically relinquishing power is not a given unless the democratic elements in that transitional arrangement are awake to the political machinations of the political cabal that wields coercive power and respond decisively through political mobilisation, among other methods.

 It is important to understand and appreciate the spiral model in order to come up with strategies to block the democratic reversal agenda that Zanu PF hardliners, the security apparatus and their attached intellectuals are crafting in the forlon hope of succeeding.

The first stage of the spiral model is associated with massive repression and egregious human rights violations by the norm-violating regime. It is also a stage that is associated with activation of advocacy networks to expose human rights violations and inform the international community about the abuses.

This stage might last a long period because, in this case, it took extended time for the transnational groups to put Zanu PF’s activities on their agenda.

This explains the silence of international human rights groups on the atrocities of the regime in the 1980s during the Midlands and Matabeleland massacres and the 1990s election-related violence. The double-standards and vested interests of powerful liberal states partly explain the silence on the massacres of the 1980s as well.

In any case, some very oppressive regimes such as the one in Zimbabwe do not become the subject of international campaigns by advocacy networks because information-gathering on human rights violations requires at least minimum links between the domestic opposition and the transnational networks in order for advocacy groups to gain access to norm-violating regimes.

The NCA, ZimRights, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights were formed in the late 1990s and at the turn of the 21st century managed to filter information on human rights violations to the international arena for scrutiny.

This leads to the denial stage, the second aspect of the spiral model. In this stage information about massive rights violations becomes public among foreign governments and transnational advocacy networks.

The information is compiled by local advocacy networks and assists to shape public opinion and policy-makers and national governments abroad, making them inquire and respond to these violations.

However, like we have witnessed for a long time in Zimbabwe, denial means that the government refuses to accept the validity of international human rights norms and that it opposes the suggestion that its national practices are subject to international jurisdiction.

Zanu PF sings the tired song of sovereignty despite the fact that Zimbabwe is a state party to international human rights treaties and a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This is a critical stage because the fact that the state denies human rights violations means the process of norm socialisation is taking root and indeed in Zimbabwe it has.

Because of the continued pressure from local and international bodies and governments, the government moves to the third stage — that of tactical concessions.

This involves releasing prisoners from jail or some cosmetic changes such as signing of the GPA without necessarily implementing the provisions of the agreement, and embracing full-scale democratisation.

The government can revert to the denial stage once it realises that the opposition and local advocacy networks have been exhausted by previous violations, are going to bed with politicians or are weakened with divisions.

However, faced with fully-mobilised domestic advocacy networks and opposition parties linked up with transnational advocacy networks, the proponents of the spiral model argue that norm-violating regimes such as Zanu PF have few choices but to comply.

In the case of Zimbabwe it would mean complying with all the provisions of the GPA. This has not happened because local advocacy groups are not fully mobilised; others have gone to bed with politicians while some are suffering from glaring lack of strong leadership.

If the advocacy groups in Zimbabwe were fully-mobilised and the domestic opposition fighting as before, we could move to the fourth stage, the prescriptive stage where Zanu PF would fully accept the validity of the GPA. The government in this stage would also accept the validity of human rights norms when ratifying international human rights conventions, norms are institutionalised and domesticated into law. Validity can be accepted while, for example, people continue to be tortured.

Continued pressure from below by domestic actors and from above through the work of transnational advocacy networks can lead to the final stage of rule-consistent behaviour. At this stage international human rights are fully-institutionalised domestically and norm compliance habitual as actors — especially government — enforce the rule of law.

When the GPA is fully implemented and repressive laws such as Aippa and Posa are repealed, there is an end to impunity and constitutional reforms. Zimbabwe could have followed this framework. However it has proved impossible so far. Political transitions are bumpy and turbulent; they are like rivers infested with crocodiles and swimming in such uncharted waters is not an easy exercise. Nothing should be taken for granted and trusting a party like Zanu PF is perilous.

The greatest lesson from the spiral model is that in political transitions such as the one in Zimbabwe, it is important for civil society to remain focused on the broader democratic goals and never to go to bed with political players. On the part of political players, insisting on norm-compliance without compromise should be the game plan to avoid democratic regression.


Pedzisai Ruhanya is a PhD Candidate, University of Westminster, London.

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