In 2008, Zimbabwe lived through one of the darkest pages of its recent history. Following the first round of general elections – which the ruling ZANU-PF party and the incumbent president Robert Mugabe allegedly lost – a wave of violence spread in the country. Most international human rights advocates described it as “government-sponsored.” According the NGOs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, during a vote recount, security forces, youth militias, and so-called ‘war veterans’ intimidated, assaulted, and tortured people who they believed had supported the opposition’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and its presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai. Because of the violence (including minor attacks perpetrated by MDC supporters) at least 180 people died, thousands were injured, and an estimated 28.000 were displaced. Five years later, many are afraid this might happen again.
Despite a five-year Global Political Agreement and a national union government (including a breakaway MDC faction – the MDC-M), with Mugabe still head of State and Tsvangirai prime minister, few of the much-needed political reforms were actually put in place. Ninety-five percent of the 3 million voters who attended a referendum last March approved a new constitution. The new charter limits the presidency to two five-year terms. This only applies from now on. Therefore Mugabe, who is in his late 80s and has been in power for the last 33 years, can hold the post until 2023, if re-elected. Some presidential powers, however, have been devolved to local authorities. The head of State has also lost his veto on laws and needs two-thirds of lawmakers’ votes to dissolve the parliament or declare a public emergency.
Progress has also been made on human rights. The charter provides for an independent constitutional court, a human rights commission, and an anti-corruption commission, improving women’s rights along the way. Nevertheless, the constitution is seen as a compromise between the political parties. ZANU-PF managed to make major changes to the draft during its preparation with Tsvangirai initially accusing its representatives of having “rewritten” the document. Simba Makoni, a former minister who won 10% of the votes in the 2008 elections stated, on his part, that there are few differences – if any – between this constitution and the previous. Despite this, Mugabe has already promised voters to amend fundamental laws if he will be the new president-elect.
In view of the vote, some parts of civil society have taken steps to prevent – as far as possible – violations and abuses. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches, which includes Catholic bishops, launched the Ecumenical Peace Observation Initiative to monitor the elections. It is still unclear if these attempts will succeed. The main source of concern, according to many experts, comes from ZANU-PF’s attitude.
According to the UK-based political analyst Simukai Tinhu “there is still widespread state-sponsored political violence directed at civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, and political activists.” “Indeed, there has been an upsurge in political violence and repression lately,” Tinhu also states in an article on Think Africa Press. Even after the constitutional referendum, homes and offices belonging to MDC members in Harare were raided and some key figures – including PM aides – were arrested. This was possible because, after the 2008 global political agreement, Mugabe’s party kept control of the army and the police, in addition to some key ministries.
Timothy Scarnecchia, professor of African History at Kent University, USA, wrote in African Argument, that in the last four years the unity government has been “always more about ZANU-PF giving the MDCs ‘a share’ of government than any true sharing of government.” Simukai Tinhu says, “public information remains under the firm grip of ZANU-PF, which continues to use state-owned media to manipulate public opinion”. He is not optimistic even looking at the main opposition party and its leader, which has become, in his opinion, increasingly “hostile”, during recent years “to those who criticise them”.
Another key issue for the future of Zimbabwe is the economy. At the end of January the country’s Finance minister, Tendai Biti of MDC, said the state coffers had only $217 after having paid civil servants. He later said that he had spoken “metaphorically,” given that the following day the same account had $30 million. Biti went on to confirm that the government did not have enough money “to finance the election and the referendum.”
This might seem strange for a country that, after the 2008 economic disaster, enjoyed substantial growth and doesn’t lack natural resources such as diamonds. Eddie Cross, an economist and MP for Movement for Democratic Change, estimates that in 2012 more than $4 billion of diamonds was extracted from the Marange fields, in the eastern part of the country. Other MDC members say these figures are “exaggerated,” but a report published in November 2012 by Partnership Africa Canada claims that Zimbabwe has lost up to $2 billion in diamond mining revenues. In 2012, even the South African former president, Thabo Mbeki – sometimes criticised in office for not having been vocal in condemning Mugabe’s rule – spoke of a “predatory élite” diverting resources from their proper destination. A clear reference to ZANU-PF officials, not new to similar accusations.
The US, the EU, and other countries froze assets of leading figures and firms in the country as part of the sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe since 2002. After the constitutional referendum, the EU eased the measures, but not the US. Mugabe himself remains on both Washington’s and Brussels’ blacklists, though he does not lack friends elsewhere. Bilateral relations with China, for instance, have been on the increase since 2003 when Harare launched an economic policy favouring investments from the Far East. Beijing became a key partner for the embargoed country, who managed to elude sanctions, even on the arms trade. According to a 2012 International Crisis Group report, China was among the “alternative sources” Zimbabwe found in this field. Not a good sign, with elections in sight.