Elections: Hopeless yet costly exercise

Elections: Hopeless yet costly exercise

ON August 22, a day before the watershed 2023 elections in Zimbabwe, we launched the policy and practice brief titled Facing the Fear: Confronting Threats to Personal Security and Peace in Zimbabwe.

The policy and practice brief extracts key policy and practice findings and recommendations from the 2022 State of Peace Report that will be launched on September 21. We decided to produce this brief and release it due to the prevailing atmosphere. As the election day drew closer, we started recording an increase in incidences of violence, threats of violence and disinformation.

These developments validated what we had found in the 2022 State of Peace Report. That fear plays an important role in people’s ability to express themselves through a democratic process and how they exercise the rights provided for in the bill of rights. 

Just to give you a glimpse of what is to come, in the State of Peace Report for the year 2022, we delve deeper into the social fabric of Zimbabwean society, looking beyond the cases of direct violence to discern the subtle and covert forms of violence that have imprisoned most Zimbabweans in a perpetual state of insecurity.

The report makes the finding that the semblance of peace in Zimbabwe is, in fact, a manifestation of ‘authoritarian peace’.

This form of  ‘peace’ sometimes allows for the absence of direct violence but is almost always enforced by structural and cultural violence that disempowers citizens, turning them into subservient and apathetic subjects.  It is a state where even if no bullets are fired, fingers remain on the trigger — perpetrators of past acts of gross human rights violations still wield the instruments of violence and enjoy impunity, while victims are denied reparation.

This type of 'peace' is a facade, and it is fragile. As highlighted in the report, the fault lines of the authoritarian peace become apparent each time electoral processes beckon.

In 2022, the cracks were already showing as the country geared up for elections in 2023. And now we are seeing everything we feared coming to pass.  In unpacking the policy brief, a few issues came to the fore. First is indeed the ‘transgenerational fear’ as one participant called it, that keeps us all prisoners, paralysing us from expressing ourselves in democratic processes as so wished by the constitution when it says, ‘We the people…’.

As the 2022 State of  Peace Report takes us back through a litany of cases of violence and threats of violence, the victimisation of such prominent politicians as lawmaker Job Sikhala, the ruthless murder of Moreblessing Ali and the harassment that followed against his family, the case of the Glen View 22, the torture of the Citizens Coalition for Change trio, going on and on, it does send a chilling message.

 As Jestina Mukoko put it in the facing fear panel discussion: “If we can do this to these prominent people, what about you?”

This is exactly designed to strike fear in the hearts of the people so that they do not participate according to their free will.

In our analysis, we have seen that this fear plays out differently depending on where one is located.  In the urban areas, it causes a hopelessness and mistrust in the system with some people then electing to stay away from the polls. In the rural areas where the violence is more pronounced, the fear not only discourages participation but rather may lead to submission when people then end up voting under duress for persons that they otherwise fear the most rather than those they love.

The result is that what we then have is not a democracy but rather just a costly performance that gives no expression to the will of the people as envisaged by the constitution.  But this fear, as the panel went on to note, is not only in the electorate. The fear is also in the leadership which chooses violence as a tool for electoral mobilisation.

Indeed, those, who go to the extremes of deploying fear to influence political outcomes, act out of fear of a life without political power.  This then creates a vicious cycle, in which both citizens and leaders, are locked in a state of perpetual insecurity, a situation that is desirable to none and can never be called peace. The Facing Fear Policy and Practice Brief makes some important recommendations, which among others, include not only policy reforms, but also behavioural changes as a way of confronting and breaking the transgenerational culture of fear.

Ultimately, the message delivered by the Brief is clear: to achieve genuine peace, we must confront the fear that cripples our people from freely exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms.

We must not separate peace from justice, equality, and the rule of law. Zimbabwe is only truly peaceful when its people live without fear, and when those deemed weak are as secure as those who claim to be strong.

The fear that we speak about has become institutionalised using security institutions and laws that instead of promoting the security of citizens, achieve the opposite.

These include such laws as such as the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act and the Patriotic Act. Even institutions that are supposed to play a supportive role to the people, like the judiciary, have become so compromised they now act like an extension of the security sector. The judiciary now plays a more prominent role in elections almost competing with the election management body, disqualifying candidates, and announcing the winner.

And yet the confidence of the people in the judiciary as an electoral dispute resolution mechanism is rock bottom. Fear does rule the judiciary as well as we have seen in the past what happens to judges who pass rulings that are contrary to the wishes of the ruling elite.

Without the executive making certain behavioural changes and being held accountable for interfering with judicial decisions, or amending the constitution to decide who hears the next electoral petition, we can never expect justice to emerge from our courts.

Underpinning all the recommendations that we have made, which aim to ensure sustainable peace in Zimbabwe, is political will. Although nearly every actor in Zimbabwe echoes the peace rhetoric, there is limited evidence of genuine commitment to positive peace. 

Fear is still prevalent among citizens, and violence, in all its manifestations, continues to be the preferred tool used by those in power to maintain their position by silencing dissenting voices.

  • Bere is the National Director at ZimRights. @zimrights.org.zw

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