BY ALEX MAGAISA
WITH the next general elections due in 2023, the current year marks the midpoint of the presidential and parliamentary term. The mood in the country is downbeat. Findings from Afrobarometer Round 8 Survey in Zimbabwe show that two-thirds of Zimbabweans feel that the country is going in the wrong direction. Nearly three quarters told Afrobarometer that economic conditions in the country are “fairly bad” or “very bad” while 62% described their living conditions as “fairly bad” or “very bad.”
These grim figures are hardly surprising. The coup of November 2017 gave citizens false hope when the then long-serving ruler, President Robert Mugabe was toppled by his lieutenants who installed Emmerson Mnangagwa in his place. There was a great, but misplaced expectation that Mnangagwa would lead the country out of the dire straits. Instead, Zimbabwe has gone down the slippery slope.
The current regime is characterised by three important features: first, deception; second, concerted efforts aimed at authoritarian consolidation; and third, rapid accumulation of illicit wealth by a cabal that revolves around the presidency.
First, the politics of deception. When Mnangagwa first arrived, he set out the charm on Zimbabweans and the world as a leader who would bring the change in the style of leadership that Zimbabwe desperately needed. His handlers presented him as a man who understood business. He presented himself as an internationalist, who was keen for Zimbabwe to reengage with the West after years of estrangement.
However, back home, he showed no interest in changing the style of governance. The same repressive style and hostile approach towards the opposition from the Mugabe era were retained. What he presented to the world and in speeches was vastly different from what he practiced at home and towards citizens.
It was not just Zimbabweans who were initially fooled by the deception. A large part of the international community also fell for the deception. It was only later that they realised they had been sold a ruse. Even the desperate efforts to use Western lobbying firms to get into good books with the US government have failed to bear fruit. Only millions of taxpayers’ funds have been spent on this fruitless exercise, money that could have been put to more productive uses.
As for authoritarian consolidation, the biggest method has been the collapse, capture, or corruption of public institutions that are supposed to be independent. One of the early signs was how he handled the anti-corruption body, Zacc (Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission), which is established as an independent constitutional commission. He simply undermined it by creating his personal unit, which he called the Special Anti-Corruption Unit (Sacu) which is in the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC).
The reason why framers of the Constitution created Zacc as an independent commission was to ensure its separation from other institutions, including the presidency, which itself can be the subject of corruption investigations. Mnangagwa chose to create his Gestapo supposedly to fight corruption from an office that has the highest potential of being embroiled in corruption.
More recently the constitutional amendments have demonstrated the tendency towards corruption of institutions. Changes to the civil service and constitutionalising the Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet means the public service is now run from the President’s office. The professional and operational independence that is supposed to characterise the public service is now compromised. It is not surprising that the Afrobarometer Survey found that 79% of Zimbabweans trust NGOs while 78% trust religious leaders compared to just 48% who trust the President and 44% for members of Parliament. Police fare the worst at 38%, largely due to corruption.
More significant were the changes to the judiciary, with Mnangagwa passing an amendment to benefit the Chief Justice who should have retired on his 70th birthday in May. Having been saved by Mnangagwa, the Chief Justice will be expected to return the favour. The other judges who will benefit from the amendment will also have to pay their dues. The amendments also changed the procedure for appointing judges to the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, transferring a large amount of power to the President.
The Afrobarometer Survey says 56% of Zimbabweans trust the courts of law. While it better than the President and Parliament it is not quite the vote of confidence that a judiciary ought to have in a democracy given the important refereeing role that it plays.
Finally, cronyism has been on the rise, with politically exposed persons reaping the benefits. This has created a small clique that is accumulating personal wealth at a phenomenal rate. Even those that have been caught up in corrupt dealings have gone untouched on account of their proximity to the presidency. Gold exports could be a bigger contributor to Zimbabwe’s foreign currency earnings but there are huge leakages through smuggling.
Last October, Henrietta Rushwaya was caught red-handed at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport trying to smuggle gold to Dubai. Her case has gone cold and instead, she has recently been “elected” president of a gold miners’ federation.
The culture of rent-seeking and opportunism have attracted dubious characters around the highest office in the country, some of them being given honorary titles of ambassadorship. Mnangagwa is often photographed with these characters, and some argue that he is desperate to appeal to young people. It is not surprising that the Afrobarometer Survey shows that two-thirds of Zimbabweans feel that the government is doing fairly badly and very badly at fighting corruption.
It is against this background that once again Zimbabwe starts looking to another election in less than two years. Despite failing to live up to the hype, Mnangagwa still wants another term. He will be an octogenarian, but he insists on carrying on. This is not good news not just for the opposition, but also for his lieutenants in Zanu PF, who must be itching for an opportunity to also lead the country.
When the military generals installed Mnangagwa after Mugabe, they must have been hoping he would serve a single term and bow out for one of them. The more he stays, the longer they must wait their turn. This means in addition to dealing with the threat of his younger rival, Nelson Chamisa, Mnangagwa must also keep watching over his shoulder because his lieutenants will also be getting impatient.
Elections in Zimbabwe come across as a futile exercise. Experience would seem to suggest that everything is pre-determined. Political referees such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the courts do not inspire confidence because they lack independence.
Previous elections have resulted in contested outcomes, leading to a never-ending cycle of accusations and counteraccusations concerning rigging and illegitimacy. This has been the story of Zimbabwe for the better part of the past 20 years. This has led many people to question whether elections are worth the pain.
Yet the truth is that they remain one of the most important forms of political expression. Our constitution recognises elections as the main prerequisite for the lawful transfer of power. The only problem is that the other value and principle of free and fair elections is hardly recognised. This is what leads to accusations of illegitimacy. Opposition parties cannot bank on elections alone without associated strategies of how to facilitate the transfer of power. Still, even as the parties strategise regarding the transfer of power, they must encourage and mobilise citizens to register to vote. The voting population is getting younger every year as more people become eligible to vote. But voter registration is not automatic.
While the Afrobarometer Report puts Mnangagwa slightly ahead at 33% with Chamisa close by at 26% the most intriguing figure is that 23% refused to answer the question as to whom they would vote for. It is highly unlikely that supporters of the incumbent would refuse to identify with their leader but more likely that in a country where voter choices are a matter of life and death, those who back the opposition leader are likely to be more discreet.
It is not unreasonable to assume that a fairly large number of those who refused to answer the question did so for self-protection. If they were satisfied with the current President, they would not lack the confidence to declare their support for him. These statistics are grim for Mnangagwa, an incumbent who only 48% of the people say trusts him.
Although only 38% expressed trust in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), and elections have been mired in problems before, it is still important to mobilise people to register to vote. As already argued, the election process offers the most important and lawful method of political expression. It also provides an important avenue of political mobilisation for the realisation of other political rights such as the freedom of assembly, the right to demonstrate and to express themselves, and campaign for causes as provided for under section 67 of the Constitution.
You cannot actively discourage people from participating in the electoral process while asking them to exercise other political rights. They go hand in hand. The process of political mobilisation requires encouraging agency through the electoral process.
Magaisa is an academic and lecturer of law at the Kent Law School of the University of Kent. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org