By Lennox Mhlanga
IN 1989, the late prominent Nigerian multi-instrumentalist musician and human rights activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his band Egypt 80 released an anti-apartheid album, Beasts of No Nation which depicted on its cover the then US president Ronald Reagan, UK premier Margaret Thatcher and South African president PW Botha.At the height of the anti-apartheid struggle and civil disobedience in SA in the mid-1980s, the now late Botha, after rejecting the liberation movement’s growing demands for freedom, including the release of Nelson Mandela, fuelling unrest and upheaval, famously remarked angrily that, “This uprising will bring out the beast in us”.
Fela then later stretched Botha’s menacing retort to encompass other notorious African dictators who seemed to swear by this haunting mantra.
Stretching it further, one is tempted, nay, forced to apply the same to the current Zimbabwean situation. It is a glaring fact elections in this country bring out the “beast” in our leaders and their followers.
As a result the mere mention of elections sends chills down the spines of many. But why is this so? It is partly because political violence and impunity have become so synonymous with polls; it has become the norm rather than the exception that bones of voters will be broken, their backsides roasted or lives lost.
Zimbabweans have allowed the culture of violence to permeate their electoral processes to the extent that this menace is now the norm rather than the exception. It is always looming. It has become so perverse that people discuss it as if it were normal for political militants and activists to bash the heads of those who do not agree with them.
Violence as a political tool has real and sometimes unintended consequences. It is also a political diversion from genuine and pressing issues. That is why it is important to implement security reforms to ensure the security services are professional and help to stem, instead of participating in, the perpetration of violence. This is an important precondition for free and fair elections. It is not interference, as some claim, but a compelling case for reform.
There are still outstanding political, legislative and media reforms which are a necessary to level the playing field before campaigning starts in the run up to elections. There is too much partisan control over state institutions and pillars of democracy such that they tend to be abused to the advantage of one party at the expense of the other participants in the electoral race. Political violence then tends to fall in between the cracks of such a compromised political setting. But violence begets violence and the cycle has no end.
There are some among those who wield political power who do not have any respect for human life. Perhaps it is this “war thing” we are told we do not understand. Evidently, when some came out of the bush, the bush never came out of them. But does the revolution have to eat its own children in order to survive?
Blatant threats against those perceived to be traitors who dare vote for the opposition are bandied about even on public forums. Others even have the temerity to boast they are above the law.
During elections, villagers are cowed into involuntary silence because the nature of retribution is usually too ghastly to contemplate. People are made an example of, in the same way as during the liberation struggle. Who from those dark days does not remember people being forced to lie on the ground while someone pounded their backs to pulp?
Fast forward to 2008 and those labelled sellouts were singled out for the most heinous crimes imaginable, with the intention of permanently etching images of brutality in the victims’ minds.
The situation is worsened by the paralysis or refusal of the security forces to act decisively in curbing political violence. In fact, such deliberate inaction is directly responsible for encouraging impunity on the part of the perpetrators. They deem themselves untouchable and this adds to the dilemma faced by victims on how and where to report their cases. To top it all , there is the continued presence of extra-judicial militias at the beck and call of certain sections of known political parties and actors.
The Sadc principles and guidelines governing democratic elections have not been implemented in letter and spirit. Human rights activists have for a long time lamented the fact that the heads of state in the region have paid lip-service to these principles which lack a clear implementation mechanism.
Certain players on the Zimbabwean political arena are insisting on internal processes which are supposed to ensure free and fair elections without outside “interference”. This only serves to muddy the waters in which the big fish prey on the small ones. Such implementation mechanisms are supposed to be driven by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the organ for National Healing and Reconciliation and the Global Political Agreement itself but these are all ineffective. These institutions and processes are paralysed by the toxic nature of our national politics.
What should it take for genuine free and fair elections to be held in Zimbabwe?
We need a process whose conduct would be above reproach and transparency to ensure results are not contested or even rejected altogether. Stolen elections have a tendency of leaving a bitter aftermath.
Though the situation is complex, the solution is simple. In a situation where Zimbabweans and internal institutions have been found wanting outside scrutiny and in the absence of guarantees, the responsibility falls on the citizens themselves to grab the opportunity presented by elections to be proactive and daring. They should troop to the polling stations in their millions and thumb their noses at the merchants of death. They should grab the chance to choose the government and leaders they want with both hands.
The sanctity of the ballot should not only be protected, but it should be guaranteed by the democratic institutions and security forces whose constitutional obligation is to protect every citizen of Zimbabwe without fear or favour. No Zimbabwean is above the law.
Zimbabweans should be brave enough to expose those who promote blatant violations of the constitution and smooth conduct of elections. How many times should people be reminded that the war is over? It is high time we left the trenches and caves of a liberation war that ended generations ago and for liberators and victims alike to enjoy the true fruits of freedom?
The time to break free from the dark past lies with every Zimbabwean and in that move, lies our fate. After the elections, will it be another five years of bitterness and regret or five years of hope, peace and prosperity? Let the elections come. Whether black or blue every countryman should be true to the motto that says: “See you at the ballot box!”
- Mhlanga is a former journalist, columnist and blogger.