‘Patriotic Bill’ has made free and fair elections impossible

Tendai Biti

In the lead-up to Zimbabwe’s election, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu PF  has passed a law that puts his opponents at considerable risk.

Zimbabwe is just the latest of many unfree countries, such as China, Turkey and Iran, that are using repressive tactics to prohibit criticism of those in power.

Last week, Zimbabwe’s  Senate, which is controlled by Zanu PF, passed the Criminal Code Law Amendment Act, or Patriotic Bill, which bans critiques of Mnangagwa and his associates.

 It also criminalises speech that harms “the country’s positive image and integrity or reputation”.

Communication with foreigners is illegal when Zimbabwe could be disparaged.

In Zimbabwe, people are now barred from issuing statements deemed unpatriotic, attending meetings inside and outside Zimbabwe aimed at overthrowing the government, or lobbying for economic sanctions and trade boycotts.

(For decades, Washington has sanctioned most of Zimbabwe’s politically powerful officials, largely for holding suspect elections and money laundering.)

“Wilfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe” is punishable by 20 years in jail.

 “Anyone planning an armed intervention” or talking in ways that could be construed as advocating “insurrection” may be jailed for life.

These draconian strictures are being put in place less than three months before a major Zimbabwe parliamentary and presidential election, scheduled for August 23.

 Just as Hun Sen, Cambodia’s dictatorial president, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s recently re-elected authoritarian leader, jailed their potential opponents and shut down opposition political parties, so Mnangagwa (80), is pre-empting campaign critiques of his regime: its massive corruption, spiralling inflation and biting hunger.

Mnangagwa ousted president Robert Mugabe, an aging kleptocratic autocrat, in a bloodless coup in 2017.

 He then won a close election in 2018 that was widely regarded as manipulated.

In August, his Zanu PF party, in power since 1980, will face challengers, such as Nelson Chamisa and the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC).

But according to the new law, Chamisa may not speak the truth, lest he and his fellow CCC candidates utter “unpatriotic” words.

Chamisa (45), and his compatriots are also barred by the new legislation from talking to foreign embassies or authors like me.

They may not utter strident criticisms of Mnangagwa’s failure to improve living standards nor condemn his failure to bring prosperity to Zimbabwe.

If they declare that Mnangagwa, once. Mugabe’s “bagman,” is wholly corrupt, they become suspected of treason and perfidious anti-patriotic utterances.

There are no legal or official definitions of what constitutes anti-patriotic speech, and no boundaries to proscribed language; infringements of the new law will obviously be determined solely by the ruling party and the police detachments it controls.

 The new act neither defines “sovereignty” nor “national interest.”

 Both concepts could be interpreted very broadly and subjectively.

Citizens might also be harassed if they so much as attend a meeting or listen to a speech advocating for more American sanctions.

The country’s judges are all beholden to the government.

As the CCC has indicated, the new law undermines the fundamental principles of freedom of association and assembly.

Former Finance minister Tendai Biti declared that “Not even Apartheid Rhodesia passed such a repugnant law.”

In addition to penalising political discussion and dialogue, Zimbabwe’s governmental electoral apparatus has somehow fiddled with the national voters’ roll by dropping people’s names from the list.

Zimbabwe won its independence from white settler rule in 1980, educated a vast cadre of productive African industrialists and entrepreneurs, and then turned away from political and economic development in the 1990s, when Mugabe captured the state for himself and his family, and for underlings like Mnangagwa.

Subsequently, Mugabe destroyed what had been a thriving agricultural economy, printed money and drove inflation upward into the multithousand percentages.

Free speech was curtailed, but there were opposition newspapers, and political campaigns were open even if the elections were often rigged. Now, however, Mnangagwa — widely known as the “Crocodile” — is taking no chances.

 The election in August can hardly be considered fair or free if opposition political contenders must remain narrowly “patriotic.”

Patriotism is a good thing — until it becomes weaponised as in Zimbabwe, China and Russia.

 If Mnangagwa wins another presidential term at the polls in August, it will be a tribute to his dominance of Zimbabwe’s media, his friendships with traditional chiefs, and — not least – to his oppression of opponents and his regime’s disdain of democracy.

*Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s programme on intrastate conflict. His latest books are Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness and Overcoming the Oppressors.

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