AFTER the coup that catapulted President Emmerson Mnangagwa to power last year, his Holy Grail in the election held on Monday this week was the quest for legitimacy: but it did not go according to plan. It ended in a fierce dispute and bloodbath, compounding his legitimacy crisis.
The deployment of the army to violently quash a protest by MDC Alliance activists on Wednesday which resulted in the death of six people, as well as the dispute around the outcome of the poll, has tarnished Mnangagwa’s bid to secure legitimacy while tainting his already besmirched political credentials.
The deployment and the army’s heavy-handed approach were condemned by international observer missions yesterday including Sadc, Sadc Parliamentary Forum and African Union which had endorsed the polls.
The Commonwealth Observer Group, European Union (EU) Election Observer Mission, the Carter Centre and Comesa condemned the heavy-handed approach by the military while also denouncing vandalism and destruction of property by the protestors.
“We denounce the excessive use of force to quell protests and urge the police and army to exercise restraint,” the joint statement read.
Mnangagwa, who took the presidency on the back of military intervention which resulted in the resignation of former president Robert Mugabe in November last year, has been on a major charm offensive re-engaging the international community.
In a recent interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, Mnangagwa described himself as “soft as wool”. This was in response to a question over his reputation as a ruthless politician tainted mainly by his perceived role in the Gukurahundi massacres where an estimated 20 000 civilians lost their lives at the hands of a government-sponsored military operation.
In a bid to win the legitimacy he desperately needed, Mnangagwa invited the international community to observe the elections, promising he would deliver a free, fair, credible and non-violent poll.
He has also come up with the slogan “Zimbabwe is open for business” to emphasise his message that the country is ready to welcome investors after years of isolation due to toxic policies and gross economic mismanagement.
The voting process by and large went on smoothly but the pre-election period was marred by allegations of manipulation while the aftermath has been plunged into controversy and strife.
Videos of soldiers opening fire on unarmed protestors have been circulated globally, resulting in many people dismissing the argument that Zimbabwe had moved on from the repression and terror associated with Mugabe’s rule.
Despite positive reports by regional bodies such as Sadc and the AU, the EU and observers from the United States have joined the opposition and many Zimbabweans in condemning the polls.
“The elections were competitive, the campaign was largely peaceful and, overall, political freedoms during the campaign, including freedom of movement, assembly and speech, were respected,” the EU mission said on Wednesday.
“However, the misuse of state resources, instances of coercion and intimidation, partisan behaviour by traditional leaders and overt bias in state media, all in favour of the ruling party, meant that a truly level playing field was not achieved, which negatively impacted on the democratic character of the electoral environment.”
The founding director of the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, Godfrey Kanyenze, said the shooting of innocent civilians by soldiers marked a slide back into repression.
“The deployment of the army to attack civilians is a throwback to the dark age. It betrays all the sloganeering about being open for business,” Kanyenze said. “It throws us back to a chapter we thought had been closed.”
He said the shooting incident is a major blow to efforts to resuscitate the economy and restore democracy.
“We do not need this is in a new dispensation. It belies all the rhetoric and it unmasks the dark past that still lurks in the background,” Kanyenze said.
“It is very easy to destroy, but a lot more effort is needed to rebuild the trust and confidence of internal and external interlocutors.”
The killing of civilians — mostly shot from the back — by soldiers on Wednesday poses a serious risk to Mnangagwa’s reputation and legacy, according to analyst Eddie Cross.
“Emmerson should call for a judiciary inquiry into the shootings,” Cross said. “If he does, it will strengthen his bid for legitimacy, but if he fails it will damage his efforts to gain legitimacy.”