We thought Mugabe was bad — but Emmerson Mnangagwa is much worse, say opponents
By Jane Flanagan: Africa Correspondent
For Chris Mapua it is hard now to recall the tyranny of Robert Mugabe. Life in Zimbabwe is more wretched and often more terrifying under the rule of the man who toppled him.
“This is what passes for skilled labour,” Mapua said, taking a filthy, ragged $5 note, polishing it with a lemon and delicately glueing it into one piece. He trained to become a teacher, but can make more on Harare’s streets buying up decrepit greenbacks that are rejected by shops, restoring them and selling them on. Once one of Africa’s most educated and thriving economies, Zimbabwe is a nation of bright hawkers where millions are starving.
A general election on Wednesday offers the illusion that Zimbabweans can put an end to more than four decades of rule by the president’s party, Zanu-PF, over a country that remains a popular destination for British tourists. But the early indications of intimidation and ballot rigging have struck even those accustomed to violent, rigged elections as unusually brazen.
Chris Mapua trained to become a teacher but he can make more on Harare’s streets buying up decrepit dollar bills, restoring them and selling them on
“I will vote, but the winning team and captain are already decided,” said Mapua, 33, who exhausted his stores of hope when Mugabe was ousted in 2017 and his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa promised a fresh start. “We thought Mugabe was bad, but this one? This Mnangagwa has no heart.”
David Coltart, a member of the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change, known as Triple-C, said: “The most illegal election I’ve ever participated in, it’s illegality on steroids.” On Saturday afternoon, only days before the ballot, election authorities had still not produced the final voters’ roll or the number and location of polling stations. The confusion is a ruse to stop the opposition getting its own polling agents registered in time.
“We have had that sort of nonsense in the past, ” said Coltart who was education minister in a Mugabe-era government when power was shared with the opposition. “But not this close to the election.”
Mnangagwa, 80, is more loathed than Mugabe ever was. Proud to be known as the Crocodile, he has ruthlessly crushed dissent. Dozens of opposition gatherings have been cancelled or disrupted. Earlier this month Tinashe Chitsunge, a Triple-C supporter, was heading to a rally in Harare when he was beaten and stoned to death, in front of witnesses, by a gang wearing Zanu-PF regalia. An investigation by police found he had been run over by a truck, Godwin Matanga, the police commissioner-general, said last week.
Forty members of the Citizens Coalition for Change who were arrested being driven to appear in court on a police truck in Harare
Women MPs have been kidnapped, beaten and sexually assaulted. Job Sikhala, a lawyer and Triple-C MP, has spent more than a year in jail since he accused ruling party thugs of killing an opposition activist whose dismembered body was found stuffed into a well.
At the same time living standards have collapsed. Forty per cent of the country live on less than the equivalent of $2.15 (£1.70) a day — up from 23 per cent a decade ago — and annual inflation doubled to 175 per cent in June. A fifth of the population have been forced to leave to find work in neighbouring South Africa or in Britain where Zimbabweans account for 13,000 skilled-worker visas, second only to India. Remittances from the diaspora bring more money into Zimbabwe than direct foreign investment.
Most of the votes cast this week will be by Zimbabwe’s under-35s, 90 per cent of whom are unemployed.
A paid-for visit to Zimbabwe last month by the retired boxing champion Floyd Mayweather was seen as a desperate attempt to win their approval. “He [Mnangagwa] is for the people, and I told him he has my support 100 per cent, so we need him brought back here [to State House]; for a great cause, for the people,” Mayweather said during his brief stay in Harare for which he is reported to have charged between $500,000 and $750,000.
President Mnangagwa’s supporters cheer at an election rally
The presidential vote is a rematch of the 2018 election when Mnangagwa defeated the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance candidate Nelson Chamisa, who is now leader of Triple-C, by a tiny margin. The results were disputed and Chamisa, 45, lost a legal attempt to overturn it.
Human Rights Watch has warned that this year’s vote for councillors, MPs and president will be held under a “seriously flawed electoral process” that falls short of international standards for freedom and fairness. In a new report, the Washington-based rights group said the adoption and use of repressive laws, biased electoral authorities and an intimidating and violent police force “demonstrated a lack of respect for the basic freedoms necessary for a credible, free, and fair election”.
The report’s title, Crush them Like Lice was a reference to threat made against Triple-C by Constantino Chiwenga, a deputy president and retired army general, during a Zanu-PF rally last year at the same time as police were using tear gas to break up an opposition gathering.
Nelson Chamisa, leader of the Cizens Coalition for Change
Mindful of the international election observers that are present, including from its African neighbours, the EU and the Commonwealth, Mnangagwa has publicly ordered his supporters to act peacefully. A vote for Zanu-PF would secure a place in heaven, the president told a rally in Harare on Wednesday where crowds were given loaves of bread in plastic wrapping printed with his face.
Wearing his trademark scarf with the red, white, green and yellow colours of the Zimbabwean flag, Mnangagwa blamed the country’s ills on international sanctions and “negative forces” outside the country, echoing the late Mugabe’s rhetoric.
Zimbabwe has been shunned by the West for two decades because of rights abuses by Mugabe, who died in 2019, but that position may be shifting slightly even though there has been no hint that Mnangagwa is interested in reform.
“There are signs of fatigue on the side of the West with the British leading the pack saying. ‘For how long do you drag this thing out?’” said Trevor Ncube, a Zimbabwean publisher and entrepreneur.
President Mmangagwa, 80, has ruthlessly crushed dissent
Mnangagwa’s attendance of the Cop26 conference in Glasgow in 2021 was the first invitation to be extended since Zimbabwe’s isolation began after Mugabe’s grabbing of white-owned farms and a ratcheting up of abuses against civilians. In May, the Zanu-PF leader was welcomed at the coronation of Charles where, on the sidelines, he met Andrew Mitchell, the Africa minister and the Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland. Zimbabwe’s application for readmittance to the bloc of mostly former colonies could be formally approved next year.
Britain’s stance reflects a diluting of western influence in Africa and the rise of other powers including China and Russia whose friendships come without caveats on democracy or human rights. There is also a new scramble for the continent’s natural resources; Zimbabwe has Africa’s largest reserve of lithium — a key component in electric-vehicle batteries.
Previous international standards for Zimbabwe’s elections to be “free, fair and lawful” have been quietly replaced by the measurement of “credible”.
What Zimbabwe’s neighbours or the rest of the world make of its voting has mattered less and less with each passing, stolen election, said Ncube, while the population has been terrorised into acquiescence.
“Zimbabweans have become brow-beaten, selfish and afraid to stand up for each other,” he said. “It is up to us to say what the standard of this election should be. If it is patently rigged, as all signs suggest it will be, then Zimbabweans needs to stand up and refuse to have their votes stolen, not move on with business as usual. Salvation is not going to come from the British or the Americans. As long as Zimbabweans accept being ill-treated, have no water or jobs, then why should the international community bother with us?”