Zimbabwe: Violence, Justice and the Commission of Inquiry

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Following the Zimbabwean general election on 30 July 2018, allegations of rigging triggered opposition protests in the capital, Harare, on 1 August. The response of the military was brutal, leaving seven people dad and serious questions about who was responsible for the loss of life. Shortly after, President Mnangagwa announced the formation of a Commission of Inquiry into the events of that day. Thomas Cripps investigates the Commission and asks whether it is likely to deliver justice.

The prospect of a Commission of Inquiry in Zimbabwe generates both optimism and trepidation. Historically, such investigations have more often than not suffered from poor processes and even worse implementation. Indeed, even when they have managed to avoid allegations of corruption and bias, Commission recommendations have tended to be ignored.

Bearing this in mind, it is little surprise that the Commission set up to report on the causes of the post-election violence that accompanied Emmerson Mnangagwa’s controversial election victory has also met withconsternation and suspicion, both in Zimbabweand the international community. Neither the removal of Robert Mugabe – who had been in power for 37 years – nor the new president’s promise to introduce an era of political and economic reform has generated a sense of public confidence.

This is mostly due to the fact that Mnangagwa is steeped in ZANU-PF history and is seen by many to be a force of continuity rather than change. Significantly, he is also implicated in the failed Commissions of Inquiry of the past. Most notably, despite considerable evidence of his involvement in the Gukurahundi massacres of the mid-1980s – when the government launched attacks that were supposed to be against dissident armed groups but killed thousands of civilian members of the Ndebele community – Mnangagwa has refused to accept any responsibility, stating“How do I become the enforcer of the Gukurahundi? We had the President, the Minister of Defence, the commander of the army, and I was none of that.”

This denial of culpability is to be expected, but few trust it because Mnangagwa is implicated not just in the violence, but also in the cover up. On the one hand, he was present in the area during the atrocities, and is on record as using highly controversial language towards the Ndebele population at the time, referring to them as “cockroaches” and “bugs” who needed to be treated with “pesticide”.On the other hand, he is widely believed to be one of the leaders that has made sure that the findings of the Chihambakwe (Gukurahundi) commission have been withheld from public inspection for over 25 years.

The willingness of the government to blame the opposition Movement for Democratic Change for the violence – on the basis that MDC leader Nelson Chamisa and his collogues incited the protest – has further raised concerns that the report will be a whitewash. Perhaps most notably, General Valerio Sibanda the Commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Force (ZDF) has described the deaths as having resulted from “politically-motivated violence”.Moreover, in a bizarre twist, military leaders have denied that it was their bullets that killed the seven individuals, despite international journalists stating that this is true, and the existence of ample evidence to this effect, including incriminating photographs and video footage.

This helps to explain why, while Chamisa has agreed to appear before the Commission, he has also raised concerns with regards to whether the state is willing to allow a fair investigation, and whether his evidence will be treated fairly.

What confidence exists in the Commission comes from the fact that it is composed of some individuals who are more independent and respected. Being made up of some local but also international members aims bring a sense of impartiality. Notably former South African president Kgalema Molanthe, chairs the commission and well-known British human rights lawyer British lawyer Rodney Dixon. The Commissions terms of reference are to investigate the circumstances that led to the post election violence, the main actors involved and their motivations, whether the use of force was appropriate to the circumstances, the role of the Zimbabwe Republic Force and finally to make recommendations for future conduct.

All in all, the Commission is a real opportunity to signify a break with the past, yet it is easy to see why the hopes of progress and change are met with anxiety. Until, the Commission shows that it is open and honest, and the government that it is willing to implement its recommendations, such commissions are likely to continue to dole out victor’s justice.

Thomas Cripps completed his MA in African history at the School of Oriental and African studies and now runs his own business as a tutor, editor and writer.


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