IN a recent op-ed in the British broadsheet, The Guardian, Zimbabwe’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, said he wants “a healthy opposition”. For Zimbabwe to achieve true democracy, the opposition must hold the government to account, he wrote.
It was almost charming and persuasive, as if it had been written by a champion of liberal democracy, not the man who, for decades, was a dictator’s right-hand man. Africa Confidential described it as “an extraordinarily lyrical opinion piece, ghost-written for Mnangagwa, comparing the blooming of jacaranda trees to the need for political accountability”.
Perhaps Mnangagwa had his Damascene moment and is a born-again democrat. But if that is the case, his words must be matched by his deeds. He talks of wanting to promote “a healthy opposition”. These are empty words unless he takes active measures to create an environment for a healthy opposition.
Free public media
There are some low-hanging fruits, such as liberating Zimbabwe’s public media from the grip of his party, Zanu PF.
The law requires public media, which is funded by taxpayers, to treat all parties fairly and impartially.
However, Zimbabwe’s public media is habitually biased towards Zanu PF. Like the Soviet-era Pravda, public media operates as the ruling party’s propaganda machinery and treats the opposition as an enemy of the state. The European Union (EU) observer mission called it “overt bias in state media” in its preliminary statement on the recent elections.
This is an unhealthy tradition which goes back to the Robert Mugabe era and the Ian Smith era before it. If Mnangagwa wants a healthy opposition, he must lead a serious transformation of public media so that it treats the opposition with respect and has the freedom to hold the government to account.
Remove repressive legislation
In addition, Mnangagwa must get rid of repressive legislation inherited from the Mugabe era. This includes the Public Order and Security Act (Posa), which unduly restricts freedoms of assembly and association.
There is also the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), which emasculates free speech. Criminal legislation, which penalises citizens for “insulting” the president has been used regularly against the opposition. No healthy opposition can thrive in such a repressive environment.
Selective application of the law
One of the hallmarks of the repressive Mugabe era was the selective application of the law. Opposition leaders and their supporters were routinely pursued, arrested and jailed by the state law enforcement machinery.
On the other hand, Zanu PF leaders and their supporters were protected, sometimes blatantly so, through amnesties.
After the elections, this practice of selectively applying the law against the opposition has started again. Not a single member of the defence forces who shot and killed civilians on August 1 has been arrested. But scores of opposition supporters were arrested.
The commission of inquiry appointed by Mnangagwa to investigate the election violence is stuffed by locals who are either partisan or conflicted. He could easily have chosen more impartial and unconnected persons, or balanced it with opposition members. Even before it has started, the outcome of the investigation is unlikely to have the weight, credibility and legitimacy that he wants.
Free local governance
A third area of reform which would show respect for the opposition is the governance of local authorities. While Zanu PF controls the presidency and parliament, the MDC Alliance controls 28 out of 32 of the urban local authorities. These include Harare and Bulawayo, the country’s biggest cities.
While the opposition dominates urban areas, Zanu PF has never allowed the MDC to govern — exercise governance without undue interference. Using its control of the parent ministry, Zanu PF has either blocked the councils’ decisions or removed them completely, replacing them with their own appointees.
The result is that the opposition is blamed for failings in urban areas but in reality, while they have some weaknesses, their authority is largely constrained by Zanu PF’s interference. The cities had more autonomy when they had executive mayors. However, once it realised that it had lost political control of Harare and other cities, Zanu PF quickly changed the law and made them ceremonial and powerless.
If Mnangagwa is serious about promoting a healthy opposition, he must liberate local authorities from the clutches of central government. This will actually allow the opposition to play an active role in governance through local authorities. The checks and balances would work both ways — the MDC Alliance holding Zanu PF to account at central government level while Zanu PF holds the MDC Alliance to account at local government level.
Free the state from the party
Probably the most important reform, however, is to separate and free the state from the grip of Zanu PF. One of the legacies of Mugabe’s rule was the conflation of the party and state. This creates a parasitic relationship whereby Zanu PF feeds off the state, gaining unfair advantages over the opposition. This is particularly evident during election campaigning which results in an uneven playing field and unfair competition. The EU criticised the “misuse of state resources” as a factor leading to an uneven playing ground.
This does not build a healthy opposition and it also damages the government’s claims to legitimacy. This unevenness was noted by international election observers in the just-ended elections and contributed to erosion of their legitimacy. If Mnangagwa is serious he has to lead fundamental reforms to free the state from his party’s grip.
Unload baggage from the past
Mnangagwa has to deal with legacy issues from the Mugabe era, which continue to stifle the opposition.
Victims and survivors of past atrocities remain in limbo. Many of them are opposition supporters. They live in constant fear because the seed of state-sponsored violence was sown during Mugabe’s rule. The rural architecture led by traditional chiefs and headmen promotes Zanu PF while closing space for the opposition. Mnangagwa has rewarded more than 250 chiefs with brand new utility vehicles, continuing a tradition passed on from Mugabe and the colonial regime, where chiefs were puppets of the ruling party.
Demilitarise the state
It will be hard for Mnangagwa to achieve this in the short-term, but he must progressively demilitarise the state. Political scientists have long noted and warned of the dangers of military encroachment into the state-civil affairs. This became more visible after the coup last November, with the direct intervention of the military to settle a party-political question and the lateral movement of senior military personnel into government. That the military has a direct and visible role in the state and civilian politics is no longer a matter of conjecture.
However, such a militarised environment does not augur well for democracy and a healthy opposition. His problem is that the increasingly powerful military might end up outmuscling him.
Listen to observers, make amends
Mnangagwa made a positive move when he invited international election observers for the first time since 2002, but now he must listen to their comments.
EU observers commended the peacefulness of the election until polling day but bemoaned “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 …” This, they said “meant that a truly level playing field was not achieved” and had a negative impact “on the democratic character of the electoral environment”.
The IRI-NDI observer mission from the United States also commented that “Zimbabwe has not yet demonstrated that it has established a tolerant and democratic culture that enables the conduct of elections in which parties are treated equitably and citizens can cast their vote freely”. Even the usually friendly African observers were critical of the use of excessive force when the military was deployed in the streets of Harare on August 1 and ended up killing unarmed civilians.
Mnangagwa has been trying hard to sound like a democrat and maybe he means well, as his supporters claim. But his words are not matched by actual reforms.
One of his newly-appointed deputy ministers, Energy Mutodi, does not seem to understand the message that his boss has been trying to project to the world. He had barely settled into office when he started issuing vitriol at the opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa and his MDC party, using language that is inimical to the approach that his leader is keen to promote. This man is Mnangagwa’s deputy minister of information — the propaganda ministry.
Until laws and practices that stifle and frustrate the opposition are removed, all the beautifully-worded ghost-written opinions in international newspapers will mean nothing for democracy and the people of Zimbabwe. What Zimbabwe truly needs is for its new leader to walk the talk.
For now, the verdict is that while Mugabe departed office, Mugabeism, the system that he built has remained intact. Old habits die hard, but it is these habits that Mnangagwa must get rid of if the opposition and the world are to take him more seriously.
Dr Magaisa is a lecturer at the Kent Law School, University of Kent and former adviser to former MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai. — firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @wamagaisa.