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In democracy, development and devolution, a call for freedom and fairness for all


Brian A Nichols
THE time has come for me to bid farewell to the Zimbabwean people. As I reflect on my last three years as America’s ambassador to this beautiful country, I am inspired by the talented people I have met along the way who work each day for a more democratic, prosperous, peaceful, and healthy Zimbabwe. I am grateful to the many people who welcomed me and educated me about this wonderful country.

I arrived shortly before the 2018 elections, when hope for a future Zimbabwean government grounded in democracy, freedom and fairness reigned.  In the years since, however, we have seen just how challenging it is to leave behind past anti-democratic practices of political repression, corruption, and cronyism that benefit a few at the expense of many.

Our partnership with the Health ministry, the World Health Organisation, the Global Fund, civil society organisations, and other partners has helped the government bring the HIV/Aids epidemic under control and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.  I am inspired by the courage and care doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers demonstrate each day to save lives.

Zimbabwe’s daughters and sons continue to speak up for peaceful, positive change despite arbitrary arrests and violence to silence dissent.  A government should not fear its public’s voice, but commit to listen, learn, and address their concerns.  Doing so is a sign of confidence, maturity, and strength.

Free and fair competition in the public discourse, political arena and in business generates the best ideas to propel a country forward.  Suppressing dissent, shutting down policy innovation, and denying equal access to economic opportunity, in contrast, extinguish creativity and lead to stagnation and despair.

As Zimbabwe prepares for by-elections and 2023 elections, there is a new opportunity to improve its bilateral relationship with the United States.

Heed Zimbabweans’ call for free and fair elections.  Fund the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and guarantee independent civilian control of electoral logistics and processes.  Complete the census.  Improve Zimbabweans’ ability to obtain national identity documents. Allow Zimbabweans living abroad to enjoy their constitutional right to vote. Register new voters to ensure the fair delimitation of electoral boundaries.  In short, assure Zimbabweans that their votes matter.

Address Zimbabweans’ long-standing fears of electoral fraud and manipulation. Reduce voter intimidation at the polls by securing commitment from all political parties to refrain from violence.  Welcome international and domestic electoral observers to monitor pre-electoral processes and elections to improve electoral integrity.

Give Zimbabwe’s aspiring leaders a chance to articulate their vision through equal access to State media and by licensing truly independent broadcasters. Foster a free and vibrant media environment. De-politicise food assistance, the Judiciary, and the security sector. These actions empower citizens to evaluate political parties and candidates on the strength of their policy proposals.

In the same way citizens demand free and fair competition in the political arena, so too, they demand it in the economic arena.  Sustainable and inclusive growth requires predictable rules of the game that apply to everyone.

All citizens should have an equal opportunity to participate and compete in economic activity, not just a privileged, governing few. More inclusive growth ensures Zimbabwe’s immense human capital works to strengthen the economy rather than seeking livelihoods elsewhere to the benefit of other countries.

Public servants, journalists, and citizens alike have exposed corruption and asked tough questions on how taxpayers’ money and Zimbabwe’s natural resources are used.

Acting on their recommendations for greater transparency and accountability controls would help ensure Zimbabwe’s abundant natural resources and taxpayers’ money is utilised to fight health pandemics, modernise infrastructure, invest in public education and provide public services to all Zimbabwean citizens.

Embracing Zimbabwe’s diversity as a strength will bolster the country’s international standing, dynamism, and economic prospects.  Devolution, as prescribed by the Constitution, offers an opportunity to ensure government works for the people.  This would give government and citizens alike a chance to participate in laboratories of democracy to test different approaches to address common public challenges.

Each day, traditional and community leaders step up to work with local councils to improve the delivery of public goods and services to all. Listen to and act on their proposals. Grant provinces and local authorities more control over their policies, practices, and development. Fulfil commitments to fund local governments. Devolve domestic revenue generation so local authorities have a greater say in how taxpayers’ money is spent to address local priorities.

As the Shona saying goes, kugara hunzwana, building a future together calls for peaceful coexistence.  Now, more than ever, Zimbabwe should embrace the politics of hope.  Until that day, the US government remains committed to working with Zimbabweans to build a future that honours the inherent dignity of our common humanity. I will be rooting for you.

Brian A Nichols is outgoing United States ambassador to Zimbabwe. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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