BSR: A Critical Review of the Afrobarometer Report on Zimbabwe


Last month, Afrobarometer, a major research network, presented findings of the 8th round of surveys on public attitudes regarding democracy and governance conducted in Zimbabwe. The survey covered several areas seeking public opinion on issues such as the country’s general direction and economic situation, government’s performance, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, trust in public institutions, political party affiliation, and voting intentions. This is important data which, according to Afrobarometer, represents what Zimbabweans are thinking. This BSR is a critical review of the report and its implications for Zimbabwe and its political players.

Afrobarometer describes itself as a “pan-African, non-partisan, non-profit survey research network that provides reliable data on Africans’ experiences and evaluations of quality of life, governance, and democracy.” It claims on its website to be “the world’s leading source of high-quality data on what Africans are thinking.” The research network began work in 1999, initially covering 12 African countries. The latest round of surveys covered 34 countries across Africa. It is therefore a useful source of data for comparative research. 

Afrobarometer works through a network system. It has national partners in the different countries where it conducts surveys. It is these national partners that carry out out the surveys. In Zimbabwe, Afrobarometer’s national partner is the Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI) founded by the late Professor Masipula Sithole. I have given this background so that the reader has a better picture of the source of the report that is being reviewed. However, before we delve into the findings of the report, it is important to provide a conceptual framework of the institution and work of Afrobarometer. 

What is a Governance Indicator?

At a conceptual level, Afrobarometer and its national partners are generators of a technology of governance called indicators. As governance scholar, Sally Engle Merry says in one of her works, “indicators rely on the magic of numbers as well as the appearance of certainty and objectivity that they convey … Indicators are a special use of statistics to develop quantifiable ways of assessing and comparing characteristics among groups, organizations, or nations.” In the field of governance, indicators represent a reduction of complex social, economic, and political phenomena to a set of numbers. Common indicators include things like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), university and college league tables, rankings of the “happiest places in the world”, or the most corrupt or democratic countries, etc. These rankings represent a compression of complex social phenomena into numerical representations. This has some advantages, but it also has disadvantages, but this is not the place to go deeper into that analysis. 

Indicators as forms of knowledge and governance

What is important for present purposes is that indicators are both forms of knowledge and modes of governance. They are forms of knowledge because the data they present, such as scores or rankings, represent a narrative about the performance of the entity that is being measured. As Afrobarometer itself says of itself, “We collect and publish high-quality, reliable statistical data on Africa which is freely available to the public.” It is a claim to the production of knowledge. The Rule of Law Index ranks countries according to how they uphold the rule of law. It, therefore, produces knowledge regarding the rule of law around the world. The mere positioning of a country on the Rule of Law Index tells a story about its performance in terms of the rule of law. At number 119, Zimbabwe was ranked in the bottom 10 in the world in 2020.  

Indicators are forms of governance because they influence the conduct of the entities or individuals that are being measured. For example, the World Bank has an indicator called the Ease of Doing Business Index which ranks countries according to the ease of establishing a business. Good rankings attract investors while bad rankings do not bode well for the country. Since countries want good rankings, they must strive to meet the criteria that are used by the World Bank to measure performance. This confers a significant amount of power to the World Bank even though it does not issue commands to countries. The mere use of the indicator is enough to get countries to embrace the policies and practices that the World Bank promotes. It, therefore, governs through its use of the indicator. But if you look at governance only through a conventional legal lens, you will miss this form of governance through indicators. 

As Merry says, indicators “facilitate governance by self-management rather than command. Individuals and countries are made responsible for their own behaviour as they seek to comply with the measures of performance articulated in an indicator.” This is important because it demonstrates the power that is held and exercised by generators of indicators, who are mostly unelected experts. Indicators, therefore, give a significant amount of power to experts. This does not always sit comfortably with democracy, which is a system whereby the legitimacy of power is based on elections and the elected are directly accountable to the electors. The “soft” power of indicators challenges this principle because generators of indicators are neither elected nor directly accountable to the citizens. This despite the enormous amount of power that they wield as producers of both knowledge and governance.

The purpose of this short introduction to indicators as a technology of governance is to place the Afrobarometer report into context. Afrobarometer is a generator of indicators regarding governance issues in African countries. Afrobarometer is quite clear about its role as a knowledge generator describing itself as a “research network that provides reliable data on Africans’ experiences and evaluations of quality of life, governance, and democracy.” As it states of its work, it produces knowledge of what Africans are thinking about a specific issue. When it conducts these important surveys, it is not only producing knowledge, but it is also facilitating a mode of governance. Governments that want to perform well must reform to score better on the rankings. To the extent that it shapes the conduct of governments, opposition parties, and other key players, Afrobarometer is an important player in African governance. 

As for the governance element, it also makes it clear on its website that its goal is to “give the public a voice in policymaking by providing high-quality public opinion data to policymakers, policy advocates, civil society organizations, academics, news media, donors and investors, and ordinary Africans”. Indicators can be an important tool for reform as they identify areas of weakness that need reform. For example, a government that learns that it is not performing well on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index might try to change its approach to be more attractive to investors. By giving a voice to the citizens through its indicators, Afrobarometer sees itself as a player in highlighting areas of weakness that need reform. Afrobarometer has built a credible and respected profile over the years. Its findings are widely used as a reference point and it can safely be said to be a leader in the field in a continent where opinion polls are few and infrequent. 

The latest survey tells us what Zimbabweans think about their government, political parties, the economy, public institutions, and voting intentions. With this conceptual background in mind, the stage is now set to critically analyze and draw observations from the Afrobarometer report which you can read in full here.

Going South – Zimbabwe’s Direction

The first indicator in the Afrobarometer report is how Zimbabweans see the direction of the country under the current government. Two-thirds of Zimbabweans feel that the country is going in the wrong direction while 72% describe the economic situation as bad. Additionally, 62% of Zimbabweans say their personal living conditions are bad. Only 35% were optimistic that the country would be better in 12 months, which leaves nearly two-thirds of the population in the hopeless category. Ratings of government performance are bad overall with job creation topping the list of underperformances at 91% followed by failure to maintain price stability supported by 78% of the people. 69% do not think the government is managing the economy well while 77% say the government is failing to address the needs of young people.

These are damning statistics that demonstrate the dire social and economic situation in the country and the lack of confidence in the current government. When President Mnangagwa took over in November 2017 after his predecessor President Mugabe was deposed in a coup, most Zimbabweans were hopeful that the country would experience better fortunes. The fact that 72% now feel that the country is heading in the wrong direction is a vote of no confidence in the regime.

The bleak public opinion is backed by indicators relating to the levels of poverty in the country. Afrobarometer found that 87% of the people went without cash income several times or always over the previous 12 months. People in the rural areas were the most affected with 91% saying they had experienced this problem while 79% of urban residents were impacted. A lot of citizens complained of severe shortages of basic commodities and services. For example, 52% went without food several times over the past year while 51% complained of a shortage of clean water. Most of those who complained of lack of clean water were urban residents (62%). 55% had gone without medical care several times.

These indicators show that there are high levels of poverty across the country but especially in the rural areas. No amount of pride can obscure the fact that Zimbabwe falls in a group of poor countries. Although the COVID19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem, the lack of cash income reflects an ongoing problem that existed long before the current challenges. The Afrobarometer report shows that 47% of the people lost a job or business due to the pandemic with most of those affected being in the urban areas (57%) largely due to the lockdown rules which resulted in the closure of businesses for months during the year. 

The higher levels of poverty make the population more vulnerable to political opportunists. For years, the ruling party has weaponized poverty as an electioneering tool. Food aid to vulnerable communities has been used to buy votes, attributing the largesse to the ruling party rather than to the taxpayer. As the country heads for the next elections, the high levels of poverty are likely to be exploited as support for communities will be politicized.

COVID Dividend

The pandemic has caused serious hardship around the world, with poor countries bearing most of the burden because of limited resources. The national lockdowns and travel restrictions have impacted economic activities very negatively. In a country like Zimbabwe most people rely on the informal sector, they lost sources of income when lockdowns were imposed. Rich countries like Britain had the facility to borrow billions of dollars to finance businesses and pay employees who were out of work. Small countries like Zimbabwe cannot do that which meant it was difficult to enforce the lockdowns even though it was necessary.

The Afrobarometer report shows that 77% of the people felt that it was difficult to comply with the lockdown rules although an overwhelming 81% agreed that it was necessary to impose the lockdown and close schools to prevent the spread of the pandemic. The government should be pleased that the people commended the government for its handling of the problem. An overwhelming 81% thought the government had done well in its response to the pandemic while 84% agreed that the public was kept well informed by the government. This is a show of confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis. This may be regarded as the “COVID dividend” which the ruling party may exploit in the next elections. While there may be criticism of the government’s approach by the opposition, it has to learn from the Afrobarometer report that most people think the government has done well. 

Public attitude to vaccines

The biggest challenge for the government will be how it handles the COVID19 vaccination program. The Afrobarometer report shows that 51% of Zimbabweans do trust the government to ensure that any vaccine for COVID-19 that is developed or offered to Zimbabwean citizens is safe before it is used in the country. Also, 51% expressed the view that even if a vaccine becomes available and the government says it is safe, they are unlikely to get vaccinated. This reflects a society that is highly skeptical of vaccination, yet the population needs to get vaccinated to ward of the existential threat of the pandemic. The government has to do more to educate people and reassure them that it is not only safe but necessary for most people to be vaccinated. But if people remain skeptical, can the government use command and control methods, forcing people to be vaccinated? This will be problematic, but clearly how the government deals with this challenge will impact how society judges its performance.  

Tolerance for restrictions during a crisis

The indicators also show that people were more willing to tolerate the suspension of fundamental rights and freedoms based on the need to deal with the pandemic. The Afrobarometer report shows that 51% of the people agreed that the government was justified in limiting democratic freedoms such as the suspension of by-elections and political campaigns during the pandemic. 36% disagreed with this view. Several by-elections are long overdue but have been suspended because of the pandemic. Several opposition MPs and councillors were purged from Parliament and council over the past year and by-elections should have been held under the Constitution. However, the lockdown rules meant that by-elections and political gatherings were banned.

Even as the situation relented, and other countries held national elections during the same period, the government kept the ban going. This has attracted criticism from the opposition, but the Afrobarometer indicators suggest that slightly over half of the people are more understanding of the need to retain the ban. This reflects the fact that people see the pandemic as a greater existential threat than the lack of by-elections. The tolerance to the limitation of rights and freedoms extends to media censorship concerning the pandemic, with 43% agreeing with censorship while 45% disagreed with it. An overwhelming 72% agreed with the use of police or armed forces to enforce the lockdown, perhaps an indication of the people’s lack of faith in communities complying without coercion.  

Public tolerance for limitation of rights may be understandable where there is a clear existential threat to the life of the nation, but the problem arises when the government uses the pandemic as a justification for the infringement of human rights and freedoms even long after the threat has passed or is no longer serious At the rate things are going, the likelihood that by-elections will be held before the 2023 elections are now remote. The Constitution says by-elections will not be held where a vacancy arises in parliament 9 months before the next election. As the pandemic goes on, the government is likely to maintain the ban until such time that it is too late to hold them. In this regard, the pandemic has been a boon for authoritarian regimes as it has given them ample justification to suspend democratic rights and freedoms with the citizens unable to challenge it. The problem is that people can become habituated to these limitations of rights and freedoms. 

COVID Liability

Although I have indicated that the government may reap a dividend from the pandemic, the major dent which represents a COVID liability is corruption. The Afrobarometer report shows that 54% of the people felt that COVID19 resources had been lost to corruption. This means more people believe that politically exposed persons took advantage of the pandemic to engage in corrupt activities. In this regard, credit must go to the media for exposing the corruption that was associated with the procurement of COVID19 goods and services. The most prominent journalists who pushed the corruption stories were Hopewell Chin’ono, Mduduzi Mathuthu (, and Elias Mambo (Zim Morning Post). A summary of the corruption stories can be read on this BSR link.

Their stories collectively demonstrated that PEPs associated with members of President Mnangagwa’s family were involved in dubious deals regarding the procurement of COVID19 goods. The government made the situation worse by arresting and detaining Chin’ono after ZANU PF had made threats. Many people saw this as an act of vindictiveness. It is hardly surprising that the Afrobarometer survey returned a positive result regarding perceptions of corruption, with many people believing that much was lost to corruption. The opposition could capitalize on this issue in their political campaigns.

More trust in the unelected than the elected

Another important indicator in Afrobarometer’s survey is the level of trust in institutions – both elected and unelected. In a damning outcome for the government and democracy, the survey indicates that most Zimbabweans trust unelected institutions more than they trust the elected ones. 79% trust non-governmental organizations while 78% trust religious leaders, and 60% trust traditional leaders. By comparison, only 48% trust the President while a mere 44% trust members of Parliament with councillors scoring even lower at 38%. The police and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission only have an approval rate of just 38%.

These damning statistics are an indictment on the government which is supposed to be the central pillar of society but is instead not trusted by the citizens. The numbers are also a poor reflection of the state of democracy in Zimbabwe. In a democracy, legitimate power derives from electoral processes where representatives are chosen. There is supposed to be a relationship of trust between the elected and the electors. There is a significant problem when citizens no longer trust the elected and instead place more trust in the unelected. It is therefore a sign of state failure when citizens have more trust for unelected institutions than in the elected ones.

Part of this is that the government is no longer able to perform its primary functions such as delivering public goods and services. This gap has been filled by NGOs, which are now seen as saviours where the government has failed. People trust those that help them in times of need, and it is generally NGOs that come to the rescue while political elites and their associates loot government funds. In addition, in the human rights field, NGOs are often the ones that come to people’s aid when their rights and freedoms are violated ironically by the state. The state must protect, but because it has abdicated its role and is the violator of rights and freedoms, people do not trust it. Instead, they place their trust in NGOs like the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, ZimRights, and the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum because they stand up for their rights and freedoms.

This situation raises important questions that go to the heart of Zimbabwe’s fragile democracy: is there a point to a democratic model where citizens have no trust in its institutions but instead have more trust in the unelected? It demonstrates a façade of democracy; that despite voting every 5 years, people do not trust the current model. For their part, the significant trust in the unelected demonstrates the enormous power and influence that these institutions hold in society. This power can be deployed both positively and negatively. It can be positive if the unelected use it to inculcate positive and progressive values and practices. But it can be negative if unelected institutions are captured by the elected so that they end up pushing an agenda that promotes authoritarianism.

The latter has always been a problem with traditional leaders who have been used by ZANU PF to push its electoral strategy. It explains why the current government has gone out of its way to give lavish gifts to chiefs because the chiefs must return that favour come election time. ZANU PF knows traditional leaders are trusted in the rural areas and it wants to ride on that trust. It also explains why lately Mnangagwa has been trying hard to build alliances with religious leaders that are perceived to be popular. This is not new, of course, as politicians have always tried in the months before elections to do performative worshipping in their bid to woo voters. Politicians know that the religious flock tends to listen to their leaders whom they trust. They, therefore, seek to benefit indirectly from this trust that religious leaders enjoy. The Afrobarometer survey has just confirmed that the strategy of wooing religious leaders is an important part of the electoral strategy as politicians seek to take a free ride over the trust that religious leaders enjoy among the citizens.

Another result of the significant trust in the unelected manifests in the excessive control that the government tries to exert on perceived opponents. With religious leaders, the government tries to woo them to be on their side. However, with NGOs, which are more independent, the government employs a strategy of control. It is not surprising that the government is already trying to interfere in the affairs of NGOs. The misguided letter that was recently written by Tafadzwa Muguti, the so-called provincial development coordinator for Harare Metropolitan Province is exactly the type of control that the government wants to impose on NGOs. We can expect to see more efforts to stifle and control NGOs as the next election draws closer.  

Zimbabwe remains a Two-Party System 

One of the perennial curiosities in these Afrobarometer surveys is that despite the poor performance, low approval ratings, and lack of trust in the government, the ruling party retains a slight edge over its rivals. The current survey says 27% of the population feels closer to ZANU PF while 20% is more proximate to the MDC led by Nelson Chamisa. The rest of the parties command just 1%. This confirms that despite the numerous political parties in the country, the electorate recognizes only two major parties: ZANU PF and the MDC led by Nelson Chamisa, making Zimbabwe effectively a two-party political system.

This is a major blow to the MDC-T led by Douglas Mwonzora, which considers itself a major player. Despite controversially grabbing parliamentary seats, the party headquarters, state funding for political parties from the MDC led by Chamisa with the active backing of ZANU PF, the Afrobarometer survey shows that the MDC-T led by Mwonzora still has not registered any effect on the political Richter scale. It is so far behind the principal parties that its relevance as a political force is merely phantasmic.

The Afrobarometer indicators are also a major blow to independents. They show that at 54% most Zimbabweans identify with a political party. It is a reminder that Zimbabweans are socialized to the idea of party politics, and they believe in political parties. History reminds us that no matter how good and well-meaning they are, most independents struggle to make an impact in elections while weak candidates make it through simply because they are associated with a popular political party. The independents that have done well are those that have broken away from a major political party with a chunk of supporters or they would have made a deal with an existing political party to get easier passage.

The pool of the non-aligned

However, it would be foolhardy to ignore the remaining group that says they do not feel close to any political party or refused to answer the question. These are potential voters that are currently non-aligned, which means there is a large pool of the electorate that is waiting to be persuaded by either of the main parties. Astute political strategists would do well to spend more time on this group because that will be the centre of the next electoral fight. Unfortunately, political parties tend to spend more time on the converted, instead of those that are awaiting conversion.  

As for voting intentions, the numbers are not different from the statistics for party affiliation. 33% say they would vote for the ZANU PF candidate while 26% pledged allegiance to the MDC led by Chamisa. The rest of the parties together command just 1% of the electorate. However, 23% refused to answer the question while 8% said they did not know and the remaining 10% said they would not vote. This means there remains about 40% of voters that are up for grabs because they refused to answer the question, said they did not know or would not vote.

It is the 23% that refused to answer that is interesting. One view might be that since it is the ruling party, most ZANU PF supporters are likely to be more confident about their choice which makes it unlikely that they would refuse to answer. On this view, most of the 23% who refused to answer is likely to be opposition supporters who are fearful of sharing their opinion with strangers. While this is plausible, there is a need to strike a balance, because there cannot be a single explanation. Another view is that people who support causes that are perceived to be unpopular prefer to remain in the closet. They might present one face in public and a different one in private. Therefore, even though it is the ruling party, some ZANU PF supporters might be shy to declare their voting intentions. Whatever the case might be, the numbers from Afrobarometer demonstrate that there is still a large pool of voters who are still to be convinced by either of the main parties: ZANU PF or the MDC led by Chamisa.  


There are several things that I would have liked to see measured in the survey. For example, the impact of the good agricultural season, how the fights in the opposition have affected public attitudes towards it, public views on issues like elections, targeted sanctions, whether they think the country is better or worse after the November 2017 watershed moment, public attitudes towards the military’s role in politics and changes to the Constitution, and the performance of constitutional commissions such as the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission. But Zimbabweans must not wait for research networks like Afrobarometer to carry out such surveys. I set out the conceptual framework of indicators to demonstrate the role they have in shaping discourse and governance. Zimbabweans should do more to generate indicators on these issues. 

Nevertheless, having studied and analyzed the latest Afrobarometer report, and considering the conceptual understandings of indicators as a technology of governance, the following conclusions are relevant:

· Most Zimbabweans feel that the country is going in the wrong direction and there are increasing levels of poverty.

· Nevertheless, the ruling party retains a slight edge over the opposition, although this has to be qualified by the fact that a large number of respondents refused to answer the question or claimed that they were not aligned to any political party.

· The fact that there is a large number that refused to answer the question or said they did not know the answer or claimed to be non-aligned shows that there is a large pool of undecided voters that remain to be convinced by the parties.

· Zimbabwe is still effectively a two-party system with ZANU PF and the MDC led by Chamisa dominating the political space. Future electoral battles will still be between those two giants. The MDC led by Mwonzora barely registers on the political scale.

· ZANU PF may reap dividends from its handling of the COVID19 pandemic which more people have approved. Although it might not be satisfactory, the public appears to have given the government the benefit of the doubt.

· However, the dividend might be reduced by the citizens’ view that there has been a diversion of resources by corruption during the pandemic.

· There has been greater tolerance toward restrictions of democratic rights and freedoms, such as by-elections and political gatherings due to the pandemic. This tolerance might be exploited by the ruling party, providing more room to expand and deepen authoritarian rule.

· The pandemic has left most people poorer and vulnerable, leaving them open to political manipulation. Young people particularly feel neglected.

· Perhaps the most telling indicator is that a significant number of the citizens have lost trust in the elected institutions. Instead, they place their trust in the unelected institutions. This is not a new trend in Zimbabwe, but it confirms the crisis of democracy in the country and state failure. It is a severe indictment on politicians and the political processes that the people they purport to govern and whose mandate they claim to enjoy do not trust them at all and prefer NGOs, their priests and chiefs, all of whom are unelected.


Reference to Sally Engle Merry’s article referred to in this BSR: Measuring the World: Indicators, Human Rights, and Global Governance” in The Palgrave Handbook of Indicators in Global Governance Edited by Debora Valentina Malito, Gaby Umbach and Nehal Bhuta