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Hope in a troubled Zimbabwe

06 April 2023

Churches are appealing for fair elections in a few months’ time, says Tichafa Chitumba


A woman has her finger prints scanned during a voter-registration exercise in Harare last month

A woman has her finger prints scanned during a voter-registration exercise in Harare last month

ZIMBABWE is a tense place right now. In either July or August, the country will go to the polls to elect both a president and a parliament. Elections here have a history of being marred by intimidation and irregularity.

At this year’s election, President Emmerson Mnangagwa (aka “The Crocodile”) of Zanu-PF will square off against Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), and Douglas Mwonzora of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T).

President Mnangagwa came to power first in a coup d’état in 2017, which ended the long, despotic rule of Robert Mugabe (News, 24 November 2017). That irregular transfer of power was ostensibly validated by an election in 2018, but it was not without controversy.

The results at many polling stations were mysteriously delayed, which gave rise to suspicions that the count was being manipulated (News, 10 August 2018). Protests in the streets of Harare were suppressed by soldiers, who fired live rounds into the crowds.

An attempt to challenge the result in court was dismissed by a panel led by the current Chief Justice, Luke Malaba — a figure seen by many as unhealthily close to Zanu-PF. In 2021, the government extended Judge Malaba’s term of office by five years, in breach of the Constitution.

Our Chief Justice has a long history of turning a blind eye to official violence. Judge Malaba began his career as a prosecutor in Bulawayo, Matebeland, from 1982 to 1984, at the height of the “Gukurahundi”: a genocidal terror directed against the Ndebele minority. Violence swept the province at the hands of the Zimbabwean Army’s North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade. As many as 20,000 people were massacred; no one has ever been charged for these crimes.

The young prosecutor Malaba’s silence and passivity in the face of the evidence before him probably helped to secure him an unusually early promotion to be District Magistrate of Masvingo, in 1984. It is to such a man that the integrity of Zimbabwe’s democracy is entrusted.

THE forthcoming elections take place not on a level playing field but on a steep slope, ZANU-PF occupying the upper ground. All the state’s resources are at ZANU-PF’s disposal. It will use them without hesitation to fund and deliver its campaign.

The CCC was formed after a recent split in the MDC, and has scant resources. It must rely on donors and well-wishers — and being known to donate to it carries risks. Although Mr Chamisa’s party enjoys wider support among former MDC activists than Mr Mwonzora’s MDC-T, the latter remains the legal successor to the MDC, and entitled thus to state funding as the “official” opposition party.

This is an anomaly that President Mnangagwa is likely to exploit. For an autocrat, running against a competitor who is allowed to operate within prescribed limits only is better than facing no opposition at all. Such a “licensed” competitor can provide a relief valve for discontent, split the opposition vote, and serve as a target for channelling antipathy. Polarisation is President Mnangagwa’s key to maintaining power.

There is little chance that the police, the army, or the Electoral Commission will behave with any greater neutrality at these elections than previously. The government has imposed strict conditions for lawful public assembly, which are near impossible for opposition parties to fulfil. Mr Chamisa’s party has been unable to campaign freely: its rallies have been either dispersed by police officers or assailed by mobs dressed in Zanu-PF regalia. Abductions, torture, and arbitrary arrests have been commonplace.

AS A priest, it is difficult to minister in these conditions. I am better off than many people here, but, even so, I and my family sometimes go hungry. My stipend from the diocese is sometimes unpaid for months at a time. Long power cuts make everyday activities impossible. The days of my youth, when I could press a light switch and know that it would turn on light, seem a dreamlike world. This country has gone backwards in time.

The Church, speaking ecumenically, gives me hope, however. It has not turned a blind eye to current events, but is playing a leading part in promoting civic pluralism, against the odds.

Last year, with impressive preparedness, our country’s Roman Catholic and Protestant church leaders convened together as the Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations (ZHOCD). They issued a joint statement, “The Elections We Want”. The text encourages citizens to participate in the democratic process and condemns any moves towards the incitement of violence, hatred, or bloodshed. The document does not criticise the government explicitly — but it is clear to whom its warnings are addressed.

The statement is no isolated venture: pastors in denominations represented in ZHOCD have drawn attention to it in sermons, and at church fellowship groups and ecumenical gatherings. They have been emphasising the importance of preserving life and holding a fair vote.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, the example of shared effort which Christians have set in this matter — despite differences between us — offers Zimbabweans an example of how to live together better in the future.

Tichafa Chitumba is a Zimbabwean priest serving in the Church of the Province of Central Africa. He writes under a pseudonym.

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