Opinion by Dewa Mavhinga
For millions of Zimbabweans, the new year is less a symbol of hope than of dread.
As Human Rights Watch notes in its new report, Race Against Time: The need for legal and institutional reforms ahead of Zimbabwe’s elections, the former ruling party, the Zanu-PF, has so far blocked important reforms that could pave the way for peaceful, free and fair elections.
The UK government and the EU should, when they meet next month to review targeted sanctions against the president, Robert Mugabe, and his inner circle, press for proper reforms ahead of internationally monitored elections before talking about a shift in policy toward Zimbabwe.
During a visit to Zimbabwe in November, I got a vivid sense of impending doom. People told me of their feelings of deja vu: another cycle of electoral violence was approaching, but little had changed on the ground. Instead of focusing on pulling themselves out of poverty and on rebuilding lives shattered by the 2008 wave of political repression, they were bracing themselves for further chaos.
This is not paranoia. The 2008 general elections were riddled with extreme violence by the security forces and supporters of Zanu-PF. Security forces and supporters killed over 200 people and beat, tortured and displaced thousands more.
I spoke to scores of battered victims who told of how the police failed to protect them or ensure justice. It was a period of terror, when the state machinery was unleashed on ordinary Zimbabweans and little has changed since then, despite the formation of a unity government between Zanu-PF, led by Mugabe, and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mugabe’s declaration late last year that Zimbabwe would hold elections this year with or without a new constitution dashed hopes of a peaceful election and the promise that a new constitution would level the political playing field.
Some Zimbabweans told me that to avoid being targeted by Mugabe’s thugs and henchmen, as in 2008, they falsely professed allegiance to Zanu-PF by attending rallies and party activities and making donations to the party. Others moved around with Zanu-PF membership cards or other party regalia that included, for motorists, displaying scarves with Mugabe’s face or Zanu-PF’s logo.
Zanu-PF supporters have already developed a jingle frequently played on state television and radio that loosely translates to: “In the [president’s] office, Bob [Mugabe] still reigns supreme.”
Memories of the beatings, killings, rapes and other abuses that took place in 2008 remain fresh in the minds of thousands of victims and their relatives across the country. They know that those who carried out the violence have not been brought to book, and that there is nothing to stop them from committing similar acts this year.
Oppressive laws that were in force in 2008, such as the Public Order and Security Act, and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, often abused by Zanu-PF-aligned sections of the police to punish opponents, remain on the statute books.
Zimbabwe’s highly partisan police force continues to harass and arbitrarily arrest civil society activists and members of the MDC under these laws. Those who dare to criticise Mugabe or peacefully protest against economic and political conditions in the streets can be arrested, beaten or tortured.
The leadership of the police, army and the state broadcaster continue to brazenly support Zanu-PF, while sidelining the MDC. And the MDC, lacking control of the state bureaucracy, has been powerless to enact democratic reforms.
The economy has somewhat improved under the power-sharing government, although these gains are still beyond the reach of many Zimbabweans living below the poverty line. The country’s health and education systems, decimated before 2009, are up and running.
However, even these improvements can unravel if Zimbabwe rushes headlong toward ill-prepared elections.
For Zimbabwe’s neighbours and international donors such as the UK government, the establishment of the unity government brought with it a veneer of normality.
Some felt it was time to restore all ties with Zimbabwe, encouraged by positive reports from the MDC side of government that all was well in this marriage of inconvenience. However, conditions on the ground are a sign that neighbours and donors need to exercise caution before they re-engage fully with the government.
It is also time for South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma, who has been facilitating political negotiations in Zimbabwe on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to insist that Zimbabwe’s political leaders put the interests of Zimbabweans first – before all else.
The UK and others should be working with Zuma toward this goal. There is little point in holding elections that, in essence, will be without choice, and that can only result in another round of bloodshed and destruction.
Dewa Mavhinga is a founder member of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute. This article was initially published by the UK Guardian newspaper