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SADC Attempts to Navigate Zimbabwe’s Disputed Election

Citizen-led efforts to remedy the fraudulent Zimbabwean election are testing SADC’s commitment to upholding democratic electoral standards in Southern Africa.

A wall in Chitungwiza with “Fresh Elections” written on it, August 30, 2023.

The words “Fresh Elections” written on a wall in Chitungwiza, Harare Province, Zimbabwe, August 30, 2023. (Photo: AFP/Zinyange Auntony)

The Zimbabwe general elections of August 23–24 were widely viewed as fraudulent. This was the conclusion of the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Electoral Observer Mission (SEOM) and other independent observer missions from the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the African Union (AU), the European Union (EU), the Commonwealth Observer Group, and the Carter Center.

Led by Zambia’s former vice president, Dr. Nevers Mumba, SEOM broke with previous practice and issued a scathing Preliminary Statement noting that the polls fell short of minimum standards set forth in the SADC Principles and Guidelines for Democratic Elections. In summary, the report noted:

  • Irregularities in the delimitation of constituencies.
  • Delays in releasing the voters roll resulting in missed opportunities to conduct an audit.
  • Restrictions in the freedom of assembly and expression emanating from draconian legislation like the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act (MOPA) and the Patriot Act, which criminalize anyone who criticizes “Zimbabwe’s sovereignty.”
  • Restrictive nomination fees that limit participation, like the unprecedented $20,000 fee for presidential nominees.
  • Evidence of lack of judicial independence.
  • Evidence of the deployment of the Forever Associates Zimbabwe (believed to be a front for Zimbabwean state intelligence) throughout the country, thus compromising the vote.
  • Problems of party/state conflation.
  • Biased coverage by the state media.

In the capital, Harare, as in other opposition strongholds, ballot papers arrived nearly 12 hours late. Given that one-third of Zimbabwe’s 6.6 million registered voters live in Harare, voter suppression there could well have decided the entire election. Voting was extended by 24 hours, however, many continued to wait to vote for hours. Others simply gave up amid the delays.

A police officer standing guard over dozens of local election observers arrested on August 23, 2023, for "unlawful tabulation" of votes.

A police officer standing guard over dozens of local election observers arrested on August 23, 2023, for “unlawful tabulation” of votes. (Photo: AFP/John Wessels)

All this seemed calculated. A new shadowy group of security agents calling themselves Forever Associates Zimbabwe—were deployed with military precision in 36,000 villages ahead of the polls. They set up spot checks at the polling stations demanding the names and identities of voters before they cast their votes.

Police and military were also stationed around polling stations armed with guns, batons, and teargas.

On the final day of the polls, following earlier break-ins by suspected saboteurs from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, the Zimbabwe police raided the offices of Zimbabwe’s Election Resource Centre and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, which deployed 7,500 electoral monitors countrywide. Accredited by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to observe the vote, these groups were preparing a parallel vote count as they had in previous elections and is common practice on the continent. In addition to seizing equipment and documentation used to tabulate results, the police detained 49 of the observers, who continue to languish in jails.

As with other Zimbabwean elections, violence was front and center of this poll. Abductions, arbitrary arrests, and beatings of opposition and civil society activists by suspected ZANU-PF agents restricted the political and civic space in advance of the election. These abductions and other intimidation tactics—including torture, enforced disappearances, and assaults—have continued since the election.

Hence, many are saying that this poll—like others before it—was a massive security operation to deliver a victory to the ruling ZANU-PF party. The highly compromised ZEC declared incumbent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the winner of the presidential vote on August 27.

Zimbabwean Citizens Petition SADC

In response to the disenfranchisement of Zimbabwean voters, the Platform for Concerned Citizens (PCC) submitted to SADC a petition signed by 65,000  professionals and members of civil society to redress the fraudulent election. Its chief drafters are Dr. Ibbo Mandaza, Executive Director of the Southern Africa Political Economy Series (SAPES) Trust, and Tony Reeler, Senior Researcher at the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) in Harare. Named the Mandaza/Reeler Petition, this initiative calls for an eight-point framework for addressing the political crisis:

  1. An Eminent Persons Group to work with SADC to resolve the crisis. Proposed names are former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (West Africa), former Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete (East Africa), and former South African caretaker president Kgalema Motlanthe (Southern Africa).
  2. Inclusive negotiations among political parties (including ZANU-PF), churches, civil society, labor unions, professionals, women, and other interest groups.
  3. A transitional government/authority inclusive of ZANU-PF, opposition parties, and technocrats from civil society and the private sector. The authority would exclude the co-convenors of the PCC (Mandaza, Reeler, and others).
  4. Constitutional amendments to remove the military from politics.
  5. Reform of critical state institutions like the judiciary.
  6. Stabilizing the economy with a pro-poor emphasis.
  7. A sovereign fund with accountability mechanisms to ensure the proper management of Zimbabwe’s resources.
  8. A complete overhaul of the electoral machinery and draconian legislation.

Petitions have historically been considered by SADC under customary international law. This principle has been affirmed by the SADC Parliamentary Forum, the SADC Secretariat, and the SADC Electoral Advisory Council (SEAC) consisting of judges from the 14 member states.

Article 11 of the SADC Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, meanwhile, authorizes the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation—managed by the SADC Organ Troika—to use any conflict resolution measure as may be necessary to resolve political crises. This includes “enforcement as a last resort.”

A meeting of the SADC Ministerial Committee of the Organ on Politics, Defence & Security Cooperation in July 2022

A meeting of the SADC Ministerial Committee of the Organ on Politics, Defence & Security Cooperation in July 2022. (Photo: SADC)

As Chair of the SADC Organ Troika, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema hosted an extraordinary summit of the Troika members—Zambia, Namibia, and Tanzania—on September 28 to discuss the Zimbabwe elections. The Troika members accepted the SEOM’s Preliminary Statement, making it an official SADC report. Second, it critiqued the behavior of Zimbabwe authorities around the elections and instructed the SADC Secretariat to convey its displeasure to Harare. Third, it gave the Zimbabwean government a right of reply, though the government has thus far declined to do so. Fourth, the Troika reaffirmed SADC rules on elections and warned that unless SADC and its member states adhered to them, the future of democracy in the region was in danger. The Troika recognized that the crisis in Zimbabwe had reputational and stability implications for the entire SADC region.

Precedents and Significance

Zimbabwe has historically benefitted from strong civil society engagement. This continues today despite some estimates of up to 4 million Zimbabweans—a fourth of the population—having fled the country as the country’s political and economic realities have become more dire.

The civic coalitions behind the Mandaza/Reeler Petition have proclaimed that Zimbabwe has entered a “Lancaster House Moment” referring to the negotiations held at Lancaster House, London, which paved the way for a comprehensive ceasefire and independence elections in 1980.

A backdrop to the Zimbabwean electoral crisis is ZANU-PF’s perception of entitlement—as a liberation party—to govern the country indefinitely.

This is not the first time PCC has engaged in this level of advocacy. During the 2008 election dispute they directly engaged the South African security team led by the former chief of defense forces General Gilbert Ramano to assess the security situation. Over 300 Zimbabweans had been killed.

“We took people whose hands had been cut off by ZANU-PF militias to the South African High Commission to meet him,” Mandaza recalls. “General Ramano broke down in tears, asking how a liberation movement could treat its people like this!”

Ramano’s report—although not made public—pressured the South African government to establish a Cabinet Committee on Zimbabwe. The Committee pushed South Africa to lead SADC mediation efforts, invoking Article 11 of the SADC Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, which led to the creation of the Government of National Unity (GNU).

This time around, Mandaza and his team have engaged senior officials in South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation and the foreign ministers of other SADC countries. On September 28, Mandaza addressed the Oliver Tambo School of Leadership, the ANC’s political school, to discuss the petition, much to the annoyance of the Zimbabwe government. On September 30, Mandaza and his delegation were invited to Mozambique to attend the 90th birthday celebrations of Mozambique’s founding president and liberation icon, Samora Machel. While there, they continued their strategic advocacy with the ruling Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO).

Entitlement of Liberation Parties

A backdrop to the Zimbabwean electoral crisis is ZANU-PF’s perception of entitlement—as a liberation party—to govern the country indefinitely. Similar notions of entitlement have seized other liberation parties on the continent.

ZANU-PF has launched inflammatory attacks against the head of SEOM, Nevers Mumba, and Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema who chairs the SADC Troika charged with deploying observer missions and attending to peace and security matters. ZANU-PF’s spokesman, Chris Mutsvangwa, said that President Hichilema “did not participate in the liberation struggle” and was “jumping on the bandwagon of those who wished to see the back of a liberation movement, which would also happen in South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania and other countries governed by liberation parties” once ZANU-PF was toppled. By the same token, he also implied that those who did not participate in armed struggle were unfit for office.

Ibbo Mandaza

Dr. Ibbo Mandaza, Executive Director of the SAPES Trust.
(Photo: ACCORD)

While revealing of ZANU-PF’s attitude toward governance in Southern Africa, the critique does not apply to Ibbo Mandaza, a highly respected stalwart who participated in the Southern African liberation movement. He served at senior levels in ZANU-PF during its exile in Mozambique and was among the first senior Africans in post-independence Zimbabwe with portfolios ranging from manpower planning to defense reform. He also taught in Botswana, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Other prominent members of the citizen-led reform effort include Trevor Ncube and Father Fidelis Mukonori. Ncube is a respected media owner in Zimbabwe and South Africa who was once on Mnangagwa’s presidential advisory board. Mukonori, a Jesuit priest, has been involved in high-level mediations dating back to the civil war. He is credited with mediating between Robert Mugabe and his generals to facilitate a transfer of power.

Next Steps for SADC

The SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation has jurisdiction over any matter affecting peace and security in any member state as enshrined in Article 11 of the Protocol, of which Zimbabwe is a signatory. This was the basis on which SADC intervened in the fraudulent Zimbabwe election of 2008, which resulted in the creation of the transitional Government of National Unity (GNU). Hence Zimbabwe’s attacks on the Organ are out of step with its responsibilities.

The 2008 Zimbabwe election was a watershed moment for SADC. ZANU-PF lost control of Parliament and lost the presidential election with the late President Robert Mugabe securing 43 percent while his challenger, the late Morgan Tsvangirai, won with 47 percent. This required a run-off as both were below the 50-percent threshold. However, it is widely accepted that Tsvangirai did in fact meet the threshold and should have been declared president.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission took one month to announce the results during which ZANU-PF orchestrated a campaign of violence throughout Zimbabwe. Under SADC mediation, both sides eventually agreed to a run-off, but the ensuing tempo of violence by ZANU was so high that the opposition pulled out, leaving Mugabe to contest the poll alone. To resolve his obvious lack of legitimacy, SADC persuaded the parties to form the GNU to govern for a specified period and prepare fresh elections.

Redressing the latest turn in Zimbabwe’s long-running crisis is a test for SADC and its ability to uphold democratic norms. Failing to do so creates a very low bar for subsequent elections in the region.

The currently envisioned Transitional Authority is being discussed as an improvement of the 2008 GNU, which was limited to the conflicting parties, excluded civil society and technocrats, and had weak oversight—with guarantors eventually losing steam along the way. Vigorous oversight by guarantors would ensure that the process is not derailed as happened to the GNU.

There are many scenarios the Troika can pursue. One step would be to call an extraordinary SADC Summit on Zimbabwe to build a regional consensus. The Troika also has the power to appoint a “contact group” to work with it to find a solution to the issue (in line with the Mandaza/Reeler Petition). While the Mnangagwa administration may reject SADC engagements, it lacks majority support among the 16 members.

Competing Interests within SADC

ZANU-PF is deeply wounded by SEOM’s findings as SADC has tended to treat ZANU-PF with deference in previous fraudulent polls. SADC leaders are themselves embarrassed by their errant member. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, his Mozambique counterpart Filipe Nyusi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Félix Tshisekedi (himself up for reelection in December) were the only SADC leaders at Mnangagwa’s inauguration. The remaining 12 chose to stay away, an indication of deep rifts in SADC on the Zimbabwe issue.

The leaders at the inauguration were heavily criticized by civil society in the region for being out of sync with SADC. It is customary for SADC leaders to wait for the findings of their observer missions before deciding on whether it is appropriate to attend the inauguration of a fellow president. Ramaphosa has taken the brunt of this criticism as South Africa holds the key to resolving the long-running crisis in Zimbabwe and is, therefore, expected to act in a nonaligned manner.

Implications for Africa

The crisis in Zimbabwe has reputational and stability implications for the entire SADC region.

Zimbabwean civic organizations have argued that only an inclusive, regionally mediated process will enable Zimbabwe to regain a democratic trajectory—and stability.

Redressing the latest turn in Zimbabwe’s long-running crisis is a test for SADC and its ability to uphold democratic norms. Failure to do so, creates a very low bar for subsequent elections in the region. That SADC accepted SEOM’s damning electoral report and has taken the citizen petition seriously show that many within the region take these norms seriously. These commendable first steps will need to be followed by further action, however, if the regional body is to demonstrate its continued relevance to citizens. With electoral standards backsliding elsewhere on the continent, SADC’s actions will have wider implications far beyond Southern Africa.

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