guest column:Tendaishe Tlou
Barely 3 years ago, Zimbabwe held one of its most contentious elections in the history of the country which can be equated to the elections that were held in Uganda on January 14 2021.
In both elections, the two main presidential candidates were young and old representing a scenario in which there is a massive youth bulge which is contesting to take power from the old guard.
In both cases, the youthful candidates represent change whereas the older candidates represent the status quo and are seen as reluctant to let go of power in the face of growing dissent and disapproval among the electorate.
At this juncture, it is of utmost importance to juxtapose these 2 cases given the similarities that were observed before, during and after elections including but not limited to organised violence and torture (OVT), captured institutions in the form of the Judiciary and the electoral commission, incapacitation of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and finally the deafening silence of regional and international bodies such as the United Nations (UN), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU) is concerning.
There is a pattern of events that is developing in Africa and it is high time that they are exposed in the interest of democracy, good governance and peace on the continent.
Organised violence and torture
OVT can be understood as the deliberate use of violence and torture by the State to intimidate and weaken perceived or real opponents particularly the opposition, civil society and human rights defenders.
After attaining independence in the 1980s, both Uganda and Zimbabwe saw a rise of strong men in the person of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and the late former President Robert Mugabe who was, in November 2017, removed from office by the incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Both leaders made significant efforts either to co-opt or annihilate the opposition in an effort to create one party States. Similarly, both presidents enjoyed unprecedented support in the rural areas.
For years, the ruling parties in both countries, which came into power after protracted liberation struggles, encountered close to no opposition at all in the early years of governing.
However, both States started to experience the growth of an organised and resilient civil society and opposition parties between the year 2000 and 2018 which was mainly composed of young people.
This unprecedented threat to the State unfortunately provoked an undesirable response which entailed the deployment of brutal force against unarmed protesting citizens.
For example, on August 1 2018, at least 6 people were shot and killed by the army in broad daylight in Harare (NGO Forum, 2018) following protests related to the release of Presidential results for the July 31 2018 elections.
In the past, Zimbabwe’s electoral environment was marred with violence before, during and after elections which reached its peak in 2008 when Mugabe lost to the then opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Most recently in Uganda, the State rolled-out systemic and widespread violence against Robert Kyagulanyi (also known as Bobi Wine), his close aides and supports across the country.
Before and after one of the most anticipated elections in Uganda’s history, the media was awash with cases of State-sponsored abductions, arbitrary arrests, assault and torture mostly of people affiliated to the opposition.
A number of assassination attempts were reported particularly against Kyagulanyi.
During and after the elections in Uganda, the internet was shut down for days and Kyagulanyi’s house was besieged by the military for 8 days to prevent him from leaving the premises and contest the election results which had declared President Museveni as the winner paving way for his 6th term in office.
Apart from Uganda and Zimbabwe, similar clampdowns against the opposition have been observed in countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia and Cameroon, among others.
The pattern is visible and is becoming contagious across the continent.
Incapacitation of NHRIs
NHRIs are independent public bodies which seek to promote and protect human rights in their country (The Danish Institute for Human Rights, 2018).
The Commonwealth Secretariat (2001) mentions that “an NHRI should have a broad mandate covering the full range of human rights issues while taking into account the universality, interdependence, interrelatedness and indivisibility of human rights which should be defined according to both domestic and international standards of law.
Following the appalling history of Uganda and Zimbabwe, both countries established human rights commissions as a measure to address and redress gross human rights violations committed in the past and set standards which would see the promotion, protection and respect for human rights at national levels in the interest of non-recurrence of gross human rights violations. Unfortunately, both the Ugandan and Zimbabwe human rights commissions have been incapacitated through inadequate funding, politicisation of the institutions, undermining of the independence of the NHRIs and in some cases, the deliberate use of intimidatory tactics to silence commissioners.
For example, following the release of a daring and factual report after the January 2019 protests, there are reports that commissioners of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) received death threats. An avalanche of resignations followed and up to this day, the commission is incapacitated to fully operate due to shortage of commissioners as stipulated in the Constitution.
In the context of Uganda, the Human Rights Commission did not even produce a report to either dismiss or confirm allegations of assassination attempts, abductions, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, assault and torture mostly of people affiliated to the opposition.
It is important that the NHRI sets the record straight as this can be used to qualify or disqualify allegations of intimidation when cases of vote rigging and intimation are heard in the courts of law. In the long run, reports by human rights commissions can also be used for purposes of justice and accountability at national and international levels.