BSR: The ghost of November?



It has been a heavy week. For most Zimbabweans, both at home and abroad, it began with great hopes and expectations, with the elections set for Monday. There was great excitement, particularly for many young first-time voters. For many, it was an opportunity to make a difference.

For seasoned voters, there was a new air of freedom in the political environment. For the first time in many years, there was a genuine sense of political freedom, especially in the urban areas. In some rural areas, the architecture of traditional leadership remained a burden but even there too, there was a level of freedom not seen in previous elections. Unsurprisingly, the voter turnout was generally impressive across the country.

Ironically, it was the institutionally compromised and biased elections referee and State media which posed the highest threats to a legitimate election. An elections process which could have been so much easier became embroiled in disputes over the voters roll, ballot paper design and printing and other administrative inadequacies and controversies which were avoidable.

The voting was by many accounts smooth and peaceful across the country. There were reports of control and intimidation, emanating from the traditional structures in rural areas, but by and large voting passed without much incident. Observers noted and praised the peace but others were unimpressed by the “unlevel playing field”, to use the terms of the European Union Observers in their preliminary report.

More trouble arrived in the counting process a reminder of the old cliché that it is not the voters that count, but those who do the counting. One case was illustrative, when ZEC swapped results, giving the loser undeserved victory. Thankfully, this was quickly reversed when the “mistake” was brought its attention.

The Electoral Law is clear on the procedures that must be used for counting, collating and transmitting election results. The key to all these processes is transparency and fairness. This is why the Form V.11 must be completed and signed in the presence of witnesses before it is shared with all concerned parties and posted outside the polling station for public viewing and recording. If these procedures were followed, there would be n problems.

Unfortunately, ZEC appears to have once again fallen short of expected standards, causing disputes, particularly over the presidential results. The margin is so small – less than 40000 votes separate an outright victory and a presidential run-off election. One cannot fault the aggrieved candidate for asking for a review of what happened. A few anomalies and misplaced numbers could change the whole game. While ZEC has up to 5 days to announce the result, there is no reason why they should not be announced sooner, especially when presidential ballots rend to be counted first at the polling stations.

Concerns began to arise over apparent slowness in announcing the presidential election results. ZEC could easily enhance confidence by making prompt announcements. In far bigger countries, with larger voting populations and constituencies, results are announced within 24 hours. That is as it should be, because the more time it takes, the more suspicions and opportunities for manipulation arise.

Eventually, when they did arrive, deep into the night, enough room had been created for such suspicions and disputes. It is important, for the sake of proceeding on a fresh and uncontroversial platform, that these disputes be resolved. While some are keen to move on, it is important to allow aggrieved parties to use the remedies that are available. For legal reasons, it is not necessary to go into detail on these issues at this stage.

Nevertheless, there are issues that have arisen in the post-election day phase which require scrutiny, for they could have a bearing on the future of the nation. The first is the tragic events that led to the deaths of civilians at the hands of the army on 1 August 2018. It happened when the army intervened to quell a demonstration by opposition supporters. One explanation is that the police had become overwhelmed and called for military assistance to restore public order. But there were also suspicions that the police was sympathetic to the demonstrators hence the call for the army. One outgoing minister, Terence Mukupe, posted such a call on social media, suggesting police who had allegedly voted for the opposition could not be trusted to manage an opposition demonstration, hence there was the need to bring in the army.

There can be no doubt that the army used excessive force, which is unsurprising because policing the public is not one of their core functions. They simply do not have the skills for it. This caused the deaths of civilians when live ammunition was used in scenes reminiscent of the worst dictatorships, where there is no regard for human life.

But who deployed the soldiers? And who gave them orders to shoot? Did some of the soldiers go rogue during the operation? Videos captured by the media show disgusting levels of brutality. There is a particular video in which one soldier takes a kneeling position and aims his lethal weapon at fleeing protestors and shoots repeatedly without restraint. One of his colleagues notices this heinous act and alerts a superior who rushes to restrain the rogue soldier. It was so callous it shocked fellow soldiers.

Instead of condemning this excessive use of force, the establishment decided to blame the opposition for allegedly inciting demonstrations. While all politicians must exercise restraint and promote peace, there is no excuse for the use of excessive force which is the primary cause of loss of life. There have been demonstrations before but without the sight of soldiers taking aim to shoot and kill unarmed civilians. The soldiers and anyone who ordered to shoot to kill have to take responsibility. There was no war and there was no threat to life which warranted shooting in that manner.

President Mnangagwa says he intends to set up an independent investigation to find out what actually happened. He spoke like a man who did not issue the deployment order. Instead, he explained that police were allowed by the Constitution to call on the military for assistance where matters would have gone out of control.

He is wrong about the Constitution. It says no such thing. In fact, section 213 of the Constitution gives him the authority to deploy troops in the country whenever it is necessary to assist police to maintain public order. He may have confused the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) for the Constitution. But the provision of POSA is unconstitutional because it is inconsistent with section 213 of the supreme law of the land.

There is a reason why the Constitution gives the President the authority to deploy soldiers with checks and balances provided by parliament. If he allows his subordinates to exercise this authority, and they do so without his knowledge, a president is unwittingly setting himself up for a coup. He is weakening his authority over the security services, a dangerous situation particularly where you have ambitious retired generals in government. If the deployment happened without his knowledge, it raises questions about his authority over the military arm of the State.

But in the context of our politics, the problem runs deeper. Last November’s removal of Mugabe was a coup in all but name. That was the moment when the genie got out of the bottle. When the soldiers rolled into Harare in their armoured personnel carriers mid-November 2017, it was not on the then President Mugabe’s authority. It could not have been him because he was the target of the military operation. There’s a court order which deemed that operation constitutional, although it clearly violated constitutional provisions because the President had not authorised the military deployment.

At the time, most Zimbabweans did not want to know because everyone was fixated on the desire to get rid of Mugabe, who had been in power for 37 years. The cautionary words that a precedent was being set which would be hard to contain were given short shrift. But the irony of this is that the beneficiaries of the November coup could also become victims of it if the command structure of the military is not reaffirmed in accordance with the Constitution.

If therefore the deployment of soldiers did not happen on Mnangagwa’s orders, it must concern him greatly should his presidency survive the current dispute. When asked at a press conference on Friday if he had ordered the deployment, he was non-committal, deciding to avoid the question by committing to appoint an independent team to carry out an investigation. But Mnangagwa does not require an independent investigation to say whether or not he gave the order. This gives rise to suspicions that the deployment may have happened outside his radar.

As it is, there are reports of soldiers patrolling high-density areas and assaulting members of the public. Yet on the same day at the press conference, he indicated that only the police have sole authority to carry out policing functions, suggesting that the military was no longer involved. Is he saying one thing and doing another? Is he telling the world what it wants to hear while doing completely different?

Or, more worryingly, is there someone else doing what they want, contrary to the President’s instructions? This translates to who exactly is in charge at the moment, a question which has begun to appear in international media but has very lately been raised by Zimbabweans concerned at what appear to be divisions along factional lines within the post-Mugabe administration.

It’s hard to understand why Mnangagwa would authorise the use of soldiers and in such brutal fashion after an election that had won plaudits from observers for its peacefulness. Why the sudden escalation of violence against civilians when Mnangagwa has appeared desperate to paint a picture of civility and reasonableness for the past 9 months? Why the sudden rise in actions which undermine and destroy the foundations of legitimacy which he has been looking for? Is it because he is that desperate to hang on to power? Or is it because there are some hardliners around him who are not bothered by the legitimacy issue, whose only concern is hanging on to power which was grabbed less than a year ago?

Mnangagwa has been doing some firefighting, suggesting the fires may be starting from another end. On Friday, when the riot police threatened a press conference convened by MDC Alliance presidential candidate, Nelson Chamisa, Mnangagwa had to quickly send his Information Minister, Simon Khaya-Moyo to stop the embarrassment. All this happened before the international media which has been covering elections. It was a desperate effort to save face. Even his spokesperson later apologised to journalists, referring to what had happened as “a lapse in command” – which raises its own questions. Mnangagwa’s response was that of a man who has been taken by surprise by the events. This raises questions: Who had sent the riot police to disrupt the press conference? Was Mnangagwa aware of what was happening? The rapid action to undo the damage suggests that it had happened without his knowledge. It did not help his cause regarding the pursuit of legitimacy.

One theory is that there is a parallel authority headed by ambitious securocrats which have control of the security institutions. This would suggest an inherent fragility in the post-coup administration, which if it hangs on could present challenges over the next 5 years if they successfully ride the wave of the Chamisa challenge. The country would have to brace itself for another period of intense factionalism, as new post-coup factions compete for power.

Another theory is that there may also be remnants of the G40 faction which Mnangagwa thought he had vanquished last November. Certainly, the social media comments by one of his ministers suggest there is no love lost between the coup-regime and the police authorities, who were immobilised during the coup as they were thought to be pro-Mugabe and therefore pro-G40. Their armoury at Support Unit emptied by the military during the coup, the police have become toothless bulldogs vis-a-vis their peers.

Some of the results at polling stations at police camps indicate there was more support for Chamisa than Mnangagwa. They have a bone to chew with the regime which has marginalised them. Could there be elements within ZANU PF and the establishment generally who are still playing Bhora Musango? After all his own margin of (disputes) victory does not seem to match the margin of victory of his MPs in Parliament. They may be keen to ensure he does not get legitimacy that he wants from this election.

Another is that if as alleged by opponents he cheated his way to victory, there must be those who assisted him. In that sense, they feel he is beholden to them. Mugabe was in that situation particularly from 2008, when he was rescued after the defeat by Tsvangirai. That is the problem when power has been delivered to you by others. They own you. They see you as a placeholder, a puppet who has no need to be consulted. This group may be doing what it wants, even without Mnangagwa’s knowledge because they are the kingmakers. Mnangagwa would have been keen for a clear mandate from the election in order to escape the clutches of the military that ushered him to power last November. If he has had to rely upon them again to win the election, then he has failed to escape those clutches.

The post-election events will also have embarrassed external allies who had taken to Mnangagwa and ZANU PF as a safe bet that could be trusted to carry out the reform agenda. It didn’t take hours to backslide into violence and brutality of the State against citizens, the very things Mnangagwa had promised would not happen. The violation of freedoms, the invoking of the draconian legislation like POSA, the use of excessive force and indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians are signs of a quick return to the old era. How then can they be trusted as reformists if they are so quick to turn to repressive methods?

This is hard for those who had bought the ruse of reformism. But they had many warnings, which they ignored. Now they struggle even to condemn the heinous killing of unarmed civilians who were fleeing or going about their personal business. The refusal to take responsibility by the State and instead, the desire to cast blame on the opposition is reprehensible. The opposition should preach peace and take measures against violence during demonstrations. But the clear and unequivocal message should have been that there was excessive use of force by the State whatever the circumstances it was responding to.

If this had happened in Western countries, there would have been widespread condemnation and even calls for the resignation of responsible authorities. Yet, when it comes to Africa, regrettably the standards applied are very low. They, therefore, condemn violence without even calling out the excessive use of force by the State. International media has not fared well either – with the BBC making a passing reference to opposition protests which “led to six deaths” instead of calling a spade and spade and specifying that six people were shot and killed by the soldiers during demonstrations.

Nevertheless, when all is said and done, what has been on show in the last few days since Election Day is that the coup that started last November did not end with the toppling of Mugabe. The election was meant to be part of the facade to complete the search for legitimacy. The excessive use of force by the State in the post-election day phase has raised many questions. Once by-passed because it was inconvenient, many external actors are now asking if there is really any difference between Mugabe and Mnangagwa?

There have been many efforts to escape the shadow of Mugabe, but the post-election events have made this task extremely difficult. The sweet words are not matching the actions on the ground. This election was supposed to be a turning point. But these last few days have shown us that the ghost of November is still in our midst. It refuses to go away. Some have since concluded that this election was just a charade. There was a fear, back in November, that they would never give up something that they went to such lengths to grab. The problem is that they never anticipated the formidable challenge of a young 40-year-old who at the time was not even a candidate. The walk-over that was expected became a real battle. The ghost of November had to return or Nelson Chamisa was running away with it.

There is a precariousness about the situation which is most unsettling.

The situation can be rescued. Both parties, the main protagonists can and must show leadership. The hope is that there will be a peaceful resolution to the current impasse and that the country can once again move forward. But the challenges raised here must be taken seriously.