Episodes of violence and prospects for democratic and free elections in Zimbabwe

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Is violence the biggest threat to credible elections in Zimbabwe? In this article, Justice Mavedzenge reflects on the history of political violence in Zimbabwe and ponders on prospects for democratic and free elections.


In less than three years, Zimbabwe will hold its next general election to select members of the legislature, councilors and the State President in July 2023. To be “free”, an election should be conducted in an environment where people enjoy civil and political freedoms, such as, the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and freedom to make political choices. It is critical that the legal system guarantees these fundamental freedoms. These freedoms must be protected in order to allow and enable people to express their political views, associate with political causes of choice and make political choices freely without fear of retribution. However, more needs to be done for this to be a reality in Zimbabwe.

Although the Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees these freedoms, the generality of the population remains gripped by fear and trauma arising from past election related violence. According to a survey conducted by the Afro Barometer in July of 2018, 76% of those surveyed said “they were still careful about what they say about politics’ while 43% expressed fear that there would be retributive violence if (the ruling party) ZANU PF lose the elections”. The findings of this survey have their roots in the horrifying episodes of election related violence suffered by Zimbabweans in the past.

Since independence in 1980, Zimbabwe has suffered at least five major episodes of election related violence. The first such episode is a genocide now popularly known as the Gukurahundi massacres. Soon after winning the 1980 elections, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) began to pursue a project to establish a one-party state in Zimbabwe. To neutralize their main rival, the Zimbabwe African Patriotic Union (PF-ZAPU), the ZANU government deployed a North Korean trained specialized military unit to conduct a campaign in the Midlands and Matebeleland provinces, purportedly to quash dissident activities in those regions. At least 20 000 people are reported to have been killed as a result of this campaign and tens of thousands were displaced. Eventually ZAPU was forced to join ZANU (to form ZANU PF) under the guise of a “national” unity agreement.

The second episode of election violence occurred in the early 1990s, when ZANU PF faced opposition from another party called the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM). Edgar Tekere – a former liberation war veteran and a former Secretary General of ZANU, led ZUM. The ruling party, ZANU PF, conducted a state sanctioned terror campaign against supporters and perceived supporters of ZUM which resulted in thousands of deaths and displacements. Details on this terror campaign are recounted by Edgar Tekere in his autobiography titled “A Lifetime of Struggle”. However, the brutal shooting of Patrick Kombayi (the then ZUM’s National Organizing Secretary) was the lowest point of this terror campaign. Patrick Kombayi was shot six to eight times on his groin. He survived the shootings but became handicapped and eventually died in June 2009 as a result of the wounds suffered from the shooting.

The third episode of violence came in the early 2000s when the current opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), entered into the political arena. In the run up to the parliamentary elections of 2000 and the presidential elections of 2002, a campaign of terror was conducted against supporters and perceived supporters of the MDC. This campaign resulted in several killings, beatings and abductions. The abduction and forced disappearance of MDC activist Patrick Ndabanyana (detailed in David Coltart’s book), the petrol bombing and killing of MDC activists Tichaona Chiminya and Talent Mabika remain the most vivid reminders of this terror campaign. MDC supporters were also accused of engaging in retaliatory violence as a result of the failure by the police to protect them from violence at the hands of ZANU PF.

The fourth episode of violence occurred in the post 2008 general election, after ZANU PF lost its majority in Parliament and, its candidate (former President Robert Mugabe) was defeated by the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of presidential elections. After the 2008 elections, the electoral commission withheld the presidential election results for over a month. The results which were eventually announced by the election management body were to the effect that the opposition presidential election candidate (Morgan Tsvangirai) had won by 47.87% and therefore, he had not garnered the mandatory minimum votes to form the next government. In terms of the Electoral Act, a presidential election candidate must win by more than 50% of the total cast vote in order to be declared the decisive winner of that election. This precipitated a run-off presidential election between the opposition MDC’s candidate Morgan Tsvangirai and the then ZANU PF leader Robert Mugabe. According to various reports published by human rights organisations, the military coordinated a massive campaign of violence against supporters and perceived supporters of the opposition. It is reported that this campaign resulted in at least 200 people being murdered, 137 cases of abductions, 1913 cases of assault, 19 cases of forced disappearances and 629 people being displaced from their homes. In his book, Jonathan Moyo (a former ZANU PF election strategist), confirms some of these findings.

The fifth episode of violence came in August of 2018. This is popularly known as the “August 1 shootings.” After the 31 July 2018 elections, some citizens conducted a protest demanding the immediate release of presidential election results by the electoral management body. The protesters were concerned that the delay by the electoral commission to announce the results of the presidential election conducted on 31 July, was indicative of ongoing efforts to rig the results in favour of ZANU PF.  As has since been established by a commission set up to investigate this violence, the Government disproportionately responded to the protests by deploying the military which went on to shoot at the protestors using live bullets. Six people were killed and dozens were injured as a result.

Although it denies culpability, the Zimbabwean Government has acknowledged that these episodes of violence have occurred. In response, the government set up the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) and gave this Commission the mandate to promote peace and healing. Ad-hoc commissions have also been established to investigate some of these episodes of violence. However, to date, nothing substantive has been done to promote healing or to hold the perpetrators of the violence accountable. Recommendations made by these commissions have largely been ignored by government. In some instances, the findings of the commissions have not been publicly declared.

As has been confirmed by the Afro Barometer survey, these episodes of violence have created an environment of fear in which people are traumatized and are not free to express their political views or make political choices. Such an environment serves as “election capital” for the ruling party ZANU PF. At this point, the ruling party does not have to engage in widespread or open violence in order to coerce citizens to vote for it. The existing environment of trauma and fear is enough to coerce the electorate to vote in a particular way. As was witnessed in the run up towards the 2018 elections, where necessary the coercion is reinforced by simply issuing veiled threats of retribution. In some instances, these threats are issued in the form of oral public statements, while in some cases, the threats are issued through certain symbolic acts which appear innocent and lawful, but which remind people of the potential retribution in the event of a ZANU PF defeat. Such acts include conducting military or para-military drills in certain locations as well as singing or broadcasting certain songs at rallies or through the national television. Such threats are enough for the ruling party to coerce voters while maintaining a semblance of a peaceful and calm electoral environment in order to portray the elections as being free. Thus, without genuine national healing, the Zimbabwean electorate remain a brutalized and traumatized people. In this context, the prospects for a democratic, free and fair election in 2023 are very low.

Justice Alfred Mavedzenge is a legal academic and constitutional lawyer.

One thought on “Episodes of violence and prospects for democratic and free elections in Zimbabwe

  1. Zimbabwe is by no means alone. The same is true the length and breadth Africa. That is why I once wrote: “…if possible, and in so far as it depends on us, resist the temptation to resort to violence; for anarchy is worse than any government, even a government presided over by the wily freedom fighter. By so recommending I am in no wise suggesting that we should beat a parley with dictatorship, and make a treaty with a view of surrendering upon terms. But rather, we should make it our business to urge all educated African elites to be of good courage; and get to work cheerfully and patiently. It is needful to sacrifice private interests to the public welfare, and to lay aside all animosities among ourselves, that we may cordially unite against a common enemy, dictatorship. We should, however, not work confusedly, or in a hurry; but rather, we should take our time, and we shall be done the sooner or at least we shall have done the better; for if we work in a hurry, we shall do the job by halves.” See, https://thekamugasachallenge.com/independence-part-2/

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