IT IS almost election time in Zimbabwe and the treason season is upon us. In fact, anyone looking to challenge President Robert Mugabe for the presidency of Zimbabwe and before that the prime ministership, first has to leap the hurdle of a treason trial.
It has become a sort of initiation and the higher the stakes or the stronger the opposition the more likely a treason trial will be in the run up to the elections.
Anybody who has challenged the hegemony of Mugabe, such as the late Joshua Nkomo (Zapu), Ndabaningi Sithole (Zanu-Ndonga), Abel Muzorewa (UANC), and more recently Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC-T), has faced a death threat, the maximum sentence for treason.
In fact Edgar Tekere, who formed and headed the short-lived Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) in 1990, is the only opposition leader never to be charged with treason.
While none of the accused were convicted, the time and resources involved are energy-sapping and with the exception of Tsvangirai none have posed much of a threat to the established order.
It is no coincidence that the biggest threat to Mugabe’s uninterrupted rulership of Zimbabwe, Tsvangirai, has faced more treason charges than any other politician. In 2004 Tsvangirai was cleared of treason charges emanating from his involvement with Dickens & Madson, a political consultancy firm led by Ari Ben Menashe, where they allegedly discussed the “elimination” of Mugabe in a contrived scenario.
Enter WikiLeaks and the sharks have smelled blood.
Attorney-General Johannes Tomana, is expected to set up a commission to investigate Tsvangirai’s alleged statement in a cable released on December 24 2009, in which he insisted that sanctions be kept in place.
If the commission was to decide that he has a case to answer, Tsvangirai would once again stand trial –– his political future and life at stake.
With the exception of Sithole, the treason accused have all escaped conviction. Sithole died in 2000 while appealing against a guilty verdict.
With such a poor prosecution record, analysts question the motive for bringing forward treason charges with the scantiest of evidence.
Irene Petras, director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said the treason charges were “used frequently after Independence.”
“In most cases, there was no success,” said Petras. “However, it takes a lot of time and energy answering to the treason charges.”
South African-based analyst, Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu said accusing opposition leaders of treason fitted into the Zanu PF strategy of “scapegoating and othering” of political opponents as counter-revolutionaries, sellouts, puppets, dissidents, enemies of the state and other such labels.
“Creating cases for political opponents and turning them into enemies of the state is indeed a very old Zanu PF strategy that they will continue to use, wear down, waste time and resources as long as it distracts the political opponent from the core political business,” he said.
“As we approach crucial elections this year or later, this strategy will be used on opposition leadership while violence deals with the electorate.”
A treason trial involving a high-profile politician could drag on for long periods which may hinder the politician or party from campaigning.
While Tomana, who has openly declared his support for Zanu PF, cannot legally constitute a commission to investigate Tsvangirai (such a commission can only be appointed by Mugabe), the possibility that the MDC-T leader can find himself in the dock exists if Mugabe so decides.
“Zanu PF’s use of the law as a political weapon to further expand its hegemonic project is unfortunate though of course no-one must be above the law,” said Booker Magure, a post-doctoral research fellow at Rhodes University, South Africa. “It is an open secret that the law is selectively applied in Zimbabwe especially when we consider the fact that treason is used by Zanu PF to whip opposition figures into line.”
Treason charges against politicians have invariably crumbled for lack of evidence leading observers to accuse the state of “false flagging”.
Tendai Biti, the MDC-T secretary-general was in 2008 accused of writing a treasonous document ahead of the inconclusive harmonised elections. The case was later withdrawn.
Dabengwa, now the president of the revived Zapu, together with the late Lookout Masuku were in 1982 arrested for high treason. They escaped conviction but were unable to enjoy their freedom because the state continued to detain them.
Muzorewa, the leader of the short-lived Zimbabwe Rhodesia of 1979 was arrested in 1983 under Operation Chinyavada (scorpion), accused of sending 5 000 auxiliaries to the then apartheid South Africa in preparation for a coup.
Muzorewa, whose party had won three seats in the 1980 elections was later released.
Reverend Sithole was accused of leading a dissident group, Chimwenje, plotting to kill Mugabe using explosives.
The WikiLeaks cables have provided Zanu PF hawks with ammunition to fire at Tsvangirai in the run-up to possible elections later this year.
Political scientist Takura Zhangazha said Zanu PF was “playing politics with the issue of WikiLeaks” and was trying to give a false impression that the MDC was “working in cahoots with the American government”.
Zhangazha said: “Their persecution of opposition figures may however not be as extreme as that of Idi Amin (of Uganda) or Mobutu Sese Seko (of the then Zaire now Democratic Republic of Congo) but it is all the same apparent, especially via some of the arbitrary legal mechanisms they utilise against the opposition”.