Zimbabwe: rights under further attack ahead of 2023 elections
A recent guilty verdict for ‘inciting violence’ handed to a prominent writer for participating in a peaceful protest starkly exposed the restrictions critics of Zimbabwe’s government face. President Emmerson Mnangagwa, having failed to deliver on his economic promises, is attempting to consolidate power by restricting the space for civil society and preparing the ground to win the 2023 elections by any means, including by packing the electoral commission with loyalists. Competitive elections and an enabled civil society are needed to bring Zimbabwe’s dismal run of authoritarianism and corruption to an end.
All Tsitsi Dangarembga did was hold up a protest sign that read: ‘We want better. Reform our institutions’. But in Zimbabwe, calling peacefully for political change is a crime.
This offence earned Dangarembga and fellow protester Julie Barnes a guilty verdict for ‘inciting violence’. As well as a fine, the two were handed a suspended six-month jail sentence that could see them imprisoned if they commit a repeat offence in the next five years – if they are found taking part in another peaceful protest like the one they attended in July 2020. Similar charges of inciting violence have been used to arrest numerous critics of the government, including opposition members of parliament.
Dangarembga is no stranger to the spotlight. She’s an award-winning novelist and filmmaker. The first black Zimbabwean woman to publish a book in English, she was a finalist for the 2020 Booker Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her debut novel ‘Nervous Conditions’. Her writing and her activism go hand in hand: she campaigns for human rights in Zimbabwe – including for the freedom of expression that is so vital to her work as a writer. Her activism was recognised with the PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression 2021.
The criminalisation of a well-known figure like Dangarembga sends a clear message: no one should call for change or question presidential power. It’s yet another concerning sign as Zimbabwe heads towards elections next year.
Flawed election in prospect
President Emmerson Mnangagwa first assumed power in November 2017 when the military forced authoritarian President Robert Mugabe to stand down after 37 years in power. But while many Zimbabweans were relieved to see Mugabe finally go, Mnangagwa brought no break from the past. For a decade he had climbed the political ladder under Mugabe before becoming his vice-president in 2014.
He was confirmed in office in August 2018 thanks to a highly controversial election in which he won just over half the vote. The opposition questioned the fairness of the vote, with reports of coercion, intimidation and irregularities in voter registration. Post-election protests were met with lethal security force violence.
Mnangagwa has sought to concentrate power ever since. In April 2021, his party passed a constitutional amendment giving the president the power to appoint a vice-president of his choice, rather than having presidential and vice-presidential candidates run together on a joint ticket. This gave Mnangagwa the power to ensure the vice-president is beholden to him rather than voters and stop a potential rival and successor emerging.
Mnangagwa has also raised alarm among civil society and the opposition by making new appointments to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) that will likely enable further government interference in elections. The new appointees include the daughter of a former vice-president, the daughter of a former mines minister and the son of current foreign affairs minister Frederick Shava. Nepotism is clearly alive and well in Zimbabwe, and it’s being used to ensure ZEC remains loyal to the ruling ZANU-PF party.
Civil society has also brought attention to an apparent problem with the electoral roll, with the potential for the authorities to manipulate voter data. ZEC has predictably downplayed these problems.
These developments fly in the face of international advice: Elmar Brok, head of the European Union’s electoral mission, has urged Zimbabwean authorities to amend the country’s election laws ahead of the 2023 elections. Brok made 23 recommendations, including to reform voter registration and provide more transparency around the electoral process.
The round of ZEC appointments came after the new opposition party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), saw some early electoral success. In by-elections held in March, CCC won two-thirds of the 28 parliamentary seats at stake. This was seen as an early test for CCC, founded in January, with several seats having become vacant after members of parliament were recalled following the splitting of the opposition. If Zimbabwe were a democracy, these results might presage a change of government at the next election – but Mnangagwa is determined to prevent that, and might very well get away with it.
Civil society under attack
Mnangagwa’s tighter grip on power has also meant an escalation of attacks on civil society organisations (CSOs). Around the world, CSOs can play a major role in ensuring the legitimacy of election processes. They can monitor elections to ensure transparency, provide voter education, encourage participation and make advocacy asks to politicians standing for election. In Zimbabwe, the authorities are making sure civil society won’t be able to do any of that.
CSOs promote and protect human rights, but through the increased surveillance of CSO operations by security agencies, many activists, human rights defenders and civil society members will be abducted and tortured, and the security threat will increase.
In June, the government unveiled an amended version of the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, disguised as a tool for ‘combatting terrorism’ and addressing ‘political lobbying’. The bill, which is still to be passed, would criminalise the work of CSOs that expose human rights violations and corruption, among other issues. It would give the government unfettered power to interfere in the work of CSOs, with the ability to replace their leadership and dissolve them. International human rights experts have made it abundantly clear that the bill’s provisions violate basic international standards on the right to the freedom of association.
1. 4 UN Special Procedures expressed concerns that the PVO Bill is not in line with international standards. But today during stnt by Perm Sec - Justice V. Mabiza on behalf of 🇿🇼 Gvt she responded to a stnt by Hon. @remyngol on closure of civic space. She said its in line ... https://t.co/f0BowEqw1c— ZLHR (@ZLHRLawyers) October 22, 2022
Voices from the frontline
Ernest Nyimai is acting executive director of Zimbabwe’s National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO), an umbrella civil society body that coordinates CSO activities, represents civil society and strengthens its voice.
The proposed PVO Amendment Bill presents the danger of further shrinking civic space should it sail through in its current form. The bill will put at further risk the fundamental freedoms that civil society is supposed to have to be able to do its work to improve people’s lives. This is due to quite significant proposed amendments that in our view are repressive.
Currently, more than 60 per cent of NANGO members are legally registered as trusts, and some are registered under Common Law Universitas. If this bill is passed as it is, they will be automatically deregistered and required to apply for re-registration under the new proposed PVO guidelines.
The PVO Amendment Bill proposes to criminalise CSOs that support, oppose or finance a political party or candidate. The clause does not clearly specify what supporting or opposing a political party or candidates entails. If a CSO opposes a party’s policy or governance practice, does this amount to opposing a political party? If a CSO gives legal support in an election challenge, does this amount to supporting a political party or candidate? This provision can be abused, especially against CSOs that work on democracy, governance and human rights issues. This provision is contrary to the right to the freedom of association provided for in section 58 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. The imposition of harsh penalties such as imprisonment for violation of this provision without any justification or regard to civil remedies or administrative fines is grossly arbitrary.
Another reason the PVO bill can affect civic space is that it is phrased in a way that would make room for selective application during its administration. If an organisation is deemed to be operating outside its mandate, its board can be immediately suspended and an interim one can be appointed to act in its stead while a final decision is made. But procedures are not clear, so there is room for the responsible minister, the Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, to arbitrarily suspend an organisation’s board due to personal interests. This kind of interference in the operation of CSOs would limit their independence and autonomy.
As CSOs we exist to protect the rights and dignity of people. If the new bill forces many CSOs to stop operating, the vulnerability of communities they serve and human rights abuses will likely increase. We need CSOs to continue working and defending people’s rights in an enabling operating environment. CSOs promote and protect human rights, but through the increased surveillance of CSO operations by security agencies, many activists, human rights defenders and civil society members will be abducted and tortured, and the security threat will increase.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Nyimai. Read the full interview here.
Unfulfilled economic promises
The backdrop to these regressive developments is a struggling economy – something that gives voters even more of a reason to want to see change. Unemployment is high, particularly among young people. Inflation stood at 257 per cent in July 2022. The rising cost of living has inevitably led to protests – and their repression. In September, for example, University of Zimbabwe students protested against a thousand per cent increase in tuition fees, and 14 students were arrested by the police.
Students at the University of Zimbabwe are currently demonstrating against the increase of tuition fees by over 400%.— Hopewell Chin’ono (@daddyhope) September 12, 2022
Zimbabwe’s public services including education have collapsed due to the LOOTING of public funds by the ruling ZANUPF elite leaving the education system in ruins pic.twitter.com/vR67wImKVL
When Mnangagwa rose to power, he promised to prioritise economic growth. He’s clearly failed. Mnangagwa has sought to deflect criticism by blaming western sanctions, but many Zimbabweans can see that the problem is deep corruption that sucks resources towards the ruling elite and reinforces government dysfunction.
If Mnangagwa manipulates the elections and gets re-elected, nothing will change. What’s needed to halt the cycle of authoritarianism and corruption is an opened and enabled space for civil society and regular competitive elections. That’s exactly what Mnangagwa is trying to prevent. He must face stronger international pressure so Zimbabwe can finally embark on its long-delayed journey towards democracy.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government must make independent and non-partisan appointments to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and enable it to oversee fair and transparent elections.
The government must withdraw the PVO Bill and allow CSOs to operate freely.
The government must protect the right of Zimbabweans to express their opinions and protest peacefully.
Cover photo by Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo via Gallo Images