The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) would like to draw the attention of the Ministry of Rural Development, Preservation and Promotion of Culture and Heritage, the National Council of Chiefs, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and the entire electoral ecosystem in Zimbabwe to the underside of the traditional leadership institution that needs transformation ahead of the 2018 elections.
While electoral reports by various observer missions, civil society and political parties have rightly identified the ZEC, Delimitation Commission, Registrar General of Voters, security establishment and State media as central to Zanu PF’s electoral strategy, very little has been said about the role of fetishised traditional authorities who are viewed by PDP as the main electoral brokers and electoral-smiths in rural Zimbabwe where 70% of the voters reside.
Evidence from the past elections indicates that the traditional leadership institution acts to support Zanu PF, and is a significant impediment to free, fair and credible elections. To be sure, traditional authorities such as chiefs, headmen/women and village heads have been deployed to police villagers; campaign for Zanu PF candidates; shunt villagers to vote according to their village arrangements, thereby violating the sanctity of the ballot; cajole suspected opposition members to pretend to be illiterate so as to be assisted to vote for Zanu PF; and unleash terror to the defiant voters. In this way, chiefs act as auxiliaries of the ruling elite. While yesterday traditional leaders were agents of colonialism, today they are agents of electoral authoritarian regime of President Robert Mugabe.
During the colonial era chiefs were co-opted as collaborators, functionaries and accessories of colonialism. Except for very few courageous ones, the majority of chiefs were maligned puppets of the colonialists and stooges of western imperialism. They were cowed into loyal co-operation with the evil systems of colonialism, apartheidism, racialism, sexism and patriarchalism to oppress, exploit and suppress black Africans. For instance, chiefs were deployed as agents in the process of collecting the much-hated hut tax, dog tax, head tax and poll tax from the impoverished masses on behalf of the racist government of Ian Smith. And they were handsomely paid for this heinous work. Apparently, the salaries of chiefs depended on the quantum of tax collection. Thus, the more cruel and ruthless the chief, the more the tax he drained out of the colonised and the higher the salary he accrued.
Not surprisingly, a number of post-independence nationalist governments across Africa sidelined the chieftaincy institution during the early years of their rule. Countries such as Mozambique, Tanzania and Burkina Faso actually outlawed the traditional leadership institution because it was viewed as a colonial vestige, gerontocratic, chauvinistic and patriarchal institution with no role in a modern democratic society. Besides, it is hardly contestable that postcolonial governments’ also saw traditional authorities as a “dangerous” bastion of rival political power, hence the attenuation of their powers.
At Zimbabwe’s independence, Mugabe stripped chiefs of their powers, including chiefly authority on extrajudicial and administrative matters. Mugabe accused chiefs of colluding and collaborating with the Smith regime for their personal survival at the expense of the people. Subsequently, a raft of Prime-ministerial decrees and a battery of pieces of legislation were enacted to subalternise and peripherise chieftaincy then. These included the District Councils Act of 1980; the Communal Lands Acts of 1981 and 1982; the Customary and Primary Courts Act of 1981; the Provincial Councils and Administration Act of 1985; the Rural Districts Act of 1988; the Chiefs and Headmen Act of 1988; and the Customary Law and Courts Act of 1990. Clearly, these legal instruments were part of the process of disempowerment of chiefs for their role as sell-outs and stooges of the colonial regime.
More interestingly, and also a good deal more controversially, the Mugabe regime has since revived and valorised the traditional leadership institution for the reasons which are not dissimilar to the colonial strategies. When Mugabe’s government began to lose legitimacy and relevance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it solicited the services of chiefs to save it from imminent political demise. The Traditional Leaders Act (1998) was rehashed in order to recreate, reproduce and re-imagine the colonial-like chief who would discipline the rural voters on behalf of the ruling elite. The Traditional Leaders Act refashioned the chiefs and headmen/women as very powerful actors and vectors in the political sphere in Zimbabwe. This happened against the backdrop of the challenge to State power mounted by the then strong opposition — the Movement for Democratic Change.
Just as the colonial governments used patron-client strategy to corrupt the chiefs, the Mugabe regime bought the loyalty of chiefs through the provisioning of personal benefits. It doled out farms, farm machinery, generators, houses, mobile phones, vehicles, fuel, electricity, salaries and allowances. To further gratify the chiefs, national flags were hoisted in their homesteads and oversized gowns, which look-like judiciary apparels, were given to them as status symbols.
In return of these favours and privileges and as a quid pro quo, chiefs have rendered unconditional support for Mugabe and his lieutenants in Zanu PF. Today chiefs have used their corruptly-acquired de facto powers to evict opposition activists from their villages; prevent opposition political parties from campaigning and deny them food aid in times of hunger; mobilised idle youths to assault opposition supporters; and deprive them of the right to legal aid and medication after assaults. Chiefs make every attempt to close the vistas and silence voices of dissent by deploying these technologies of electoral manipulation, electoral malpractice, electoral malfeasance and electoral fraud.
Under these circumstances, elections in rural areas have been just a formality. And this was exacerbated by the fact that election observer missions rarely go to rural areas, civil society’s presence is nominal and media coverage is sporadic and occasional. Thus, chiefs take advantage of these circumstances to bolster the long distance rulership, stayism and life presidency of Mugabe. In fact, chiefs are the most dependable partners of Mugabe’s life-presidency project and the most reliable electoral alchemist in rural Zimbabwe.
PDP therefore, demands that the roles of chiefs as paid agents of the Mugabe regime be transformed, if electoral integrity is to be realised in 2018. As per the provisions of the Constitution of Zimbabwe Chapter 15 Section 281, chiefs should not be members of any political party or in any way participate in partisan politics; should not further the interests of any political party or cause; and should not violate the fundamental rights and freedoms of any person. Although chiefs can vote and participate in democratic processes, they are constitutionally banned from actively participating in political campaigns. In this regard, ZEC and the National Council of Chiefs should take concrete steps to ensure that the chieftaincy in Zimbabwe complies with the norms and values of the Constitution.
PDP also demands that the Rural Development, Preservation and Promotion of Culture and Heritage ministry should ensure that the law governing chieftainship such as the Traditional Leaders Act is re-aligned in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 15 of the Constitution. Additionally, a new Act of Parliament must be promulgated to provide for the establishment, membership and procedures of an Integrity and Ethics Committee of Chiefs must be promulgated without further delay. Section 287 of the Constitution stipulates that the Integrity and Ethics Committee of Chiefs shall be responsible for developing and enforcing integrity and ethical conduct of chiefs and shall also deal with complaints against traditional leaders. In light of the fast approaching 2018 elections, the Integrity and Ethics Committee is now urgent.
Finally, PDP would like to salute all those chiefs who have resisted fetishisation and co-optation by Zanu PF and have adhered to the norms and values of traditional chiefly functions as custodians and guardians of traditional resources, culture, environment, conflict resolution, promotion of deliberative democracy, and protection of the poor in their communities. Some of these cultural giants have been punished, some de-stooled and some deprived of chiefly privileges while others have been humiliated for refusing to sell their souls. These are the chiefs with pedigree required to take Zimbabwe back onto the track.
Gorden Moyo is PDP Secretary general