The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and other relevant state institutions turned a blind eye to thousands of violations during the registration of voters, thereby compromising the legitimacy of the 2018 general elections, it has emerged.
By OBEY MANAYITI
ZEC has already opened its voters’ rolls for preliminary inspection despite the failure to redress the violations ahead of the elections, whose date is yet to be promulgated.
Heal Zimbabwe Trust (HZT), a civil society organisation that monitored the biometric voter registration (BVR) exercise that commenced in early October 2017 and ended with a mop-up campaign in February this year, received close to 6 000 complaints on its own.
According to the trust, the “gross” BVR violations included the forced submission of voter slip serial numbers to political activists mainly from the ruling Zanu PF and traditional leaders, assaults, threats of exclusion from food aid, forced attendance at political meetings and the unauthorised recording of voters’ information. The violations occurred in all the 10 provinces, but, noted HZT, Mashonaland East, Mashonaland Central, Manicaland and Masvingo were at the top of the list, while Matabeleland South and Matabeleland North recorded the least number of human rights abuses during the BVR process.
HZT averred that these acts scared the affected registrants and, therefore, ran contrary to Part 8 of the Electoral Act that criminalises intimidation of people during voter registration.
ZEC, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) and the Zimbabwe Republic police [ZRP] have a constitutional obligation to address the violations.
However, investigations by The Standard, working in collaboration with the Information for Development Trust (IDT), revealed that despite receiving the litany of complaints from civil society, registrants and political parties, these agencies largely turned a deaf ear.
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HZT, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) and political parties inundated ZEC with complaints, but the commission, it was established, mainly resorted to half-hearted dialogue with the victims and the perpetrators and avoided taking decisive action against the culprits.
As a result, the abuses persisted up to the end of the registration process and victims were denied justice.
HZT, in a round-up of the BVR process, expressed dismay at the fact that when it engaged ZEC on the violations, the commission insisted that the unauthorised recording of voters’ serial numbers did not compromise the secrecy of the ballot but at the same time noted that it “heavily discourages the practice”.
ZEC, which has been dogged by allegations of bias towards the ruling party for many years, went further to say collecting serial numbers of registration slips did not have negative implications on the electorate as it did not show how people would vote.
But scores of victims of the violations who were tracked down during our investigations felt otherwise.
“Why would these people collect the details if not to intimidate us? What do they want to use them for? Who knows, maybe they will approach ZEC and get the information on how we voted and then punish us,” said Learnmore Mavhenyengwa, a 25-year old MDC-T supporter from rural Seke.
Mavhenyengwa, like many of his colleagues who support the opposition in Seke, recalled how Zanu PF supporters, war veterans, soldiers and traditional leaders used the same tactic in the run-up to the violent 2008 presidential run-off that ousted former president Robert Mugabe won controversially against the late MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
“They did the same thing in 2008. Many people were beaten up, abducted or killed. We still live in fear of what could happen to us if Zanu PF loses,” he added.
“They are torturing our minds and indirectly forcing us to vote for a party which we don’t like.”
Despite ZEC’s attempt to downplay the negative implications of demanding voter slip serial numbers from registrants, ZRP in January condemned the practice.
In a statement, the police warned that anyone forcing people to release their voter registration slips would be committing an offence.
“The voter registration slips shall remain the property of ZEC and no one else has the right to demand them for whatever reason,” read a statement from the ZRP.
ZEC, which under section 239 of the constitution has the role to receive and consider complaints from the public and take appropriate action, acknowledged that the BVR process was fraught with violations.
The commission’s deputy chairperson, Emmanuel Magade, could not tell if their responses were helpful, admitting that their interventions were mostly meant to get the aggrieved and the aggressors to engage each other.
While ZEC claimed to have forwarded some complaints to the police, it failed to show that it had followed up on the cases.
“In some communities we engaged influential people like traditional leaders, but I cannot say whether the response was enough. It is not just the obligation of Zec. It is everybody’s responsibility but, of course, admittedly we have to be on the forefront,” he said.
“We engaged the main political parties at various forums and took the opportunity to inform everyone that such activities were unsavoury and would not be countenanced by the commission.
“The commission found such activities totally unacceptable and objectionable. We went public by issuing press statements in which we denounced the demand for voter registration slips and serial numbers.
“We also went out of our way to assure the public that those serial numbers were of no use to anybody and that no third party had a right to demand them and that they were entirely a private matter between ZEC and the would-be voter.”
Heal Zimbabwe Trust, though, dismissed the press statements as insufficient to deter voter registration violations while the ERC urged firm action.
The ZRP did not help matters either, acknowledging that it had received numerous reports of BVR violations and claiming that it had launched investigations, but with no results to show for it.
ZRP spokesperson senior assistant commissioner Charity Charamba seemed to have no clue on what their purported investigations had yielded when contacted for a comment.
“I don’t have the statistics of the cases off-hand but when reports are made, we carry out investigations and make arrests,” she said.
“We are determined to do things differently and we can assure you that these cases are being dealt with.”
Facts on the ground are different, though.
Our investigations established that, in many cases, the victims who had approached various rural police stations across the country were made to wait for long periods, subjected to intense interrogations and in some cases told to return the following day.
In other cases, their complaints were merely noted in the Reports Received Book (RRB) or on loose papers and they were promised that action would be taken later even though the perpetrators were never taken in for investigations.
Two victims from Goromonzi district said junior police details had referred them to ZEC and dismissed them while some did not see any use in taking their cases to the law enforcers.
“It is quite unfortunate that Heal Zimbabwe did not record any report of (the) arrest of perpetrators of human rights violations during the BVR process. This was despite numerous reports made to the police both at local and national level.
“HZT is equally concerned with the welfare and security of victims who have lost faith and confidence in the police,” noted HZT in its summation of the BVR process. Investigations identified only one case in which police in Masvingo arrested a violator and secured a conviction.
In the case, 43-year-old Abel Mauchi filed a complaint against Matora Masiiwa at Nerupiri police station in Gutu for being assaulted for refusing to produce his voter registration slip to the accused.
With the help of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, the matter went to the Gutu Magistrates’ Court where Matora was tried and convicted, Mauchi followed the issue up with a civil claim of $10 000 for the assault.
None of the traditional leaders who were named in the violations by registrants, political parties and civil society were punished, investigations revealed.
Yet, noted the Electrons Resource Centre, an elections watchdog, in its correspondence to ZEC that it shared with The Standard, that traditional leaders’ actions “have severe implications on the credibility, freeness and fairness of Zimbabwe’s electoral processes”.
In January, MDC-T Manicaland spokesperson and Mutasa Central legislator Trevor Saruwaka filed a complaint at the ZHRC against traditional leaders going around the constituency intimidating people and demanding their voter registration slips.
One of the alleged violators was a village head identified as Manyasha, who Saruwaka accused of using a funeral to order all adult villagers to bring their registration slips to him for recording and threatening those that did not comply with exclusion from future food handouts.
Manyasha claimed he was acting on the instructions of another traditional leader named as Mukahanana, according to Saruwaka’s report.
Despite Saruwaka’s formal complaint to the human rights commission, no action was taken.
Transform Zimbabwe leader Jacob Ngarivhume said they also approached the electoral body but were dismayed that “there has been no progress in addressing our complaints”. In an interview with The Standard, ZHRC chairperson Elasto Mugwadi said they compiled a report on the BVR violations that they shared with ZEC, Zanu PF and MDC-T.
For all the complaints that came to it, the poorly resourced ZHRC only managed to investigate three cases in rural Marondera’s Rapids Farm, Bocha in Marange and another in Mutasa district, but no information was available on the results of the investigations.
In the three cases, perpetrators were said to be forcing community members to submit their BVR slip serial numbers to the village heads, councillors and chairpersons of Zanu PF structures or village development committees, according to the ZHRC report.
“Political intimidation and electoral malpractices continue unabated in Zimbabwe. This is largely due to the fact that most leaders at national and local levels lack the political will to deal with political violations decisively,” said the report.
It added: “It is clear that the powers-that-be in the political field are aware of the issue of serial numbers although they chose to ignore the situation.”
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has repeatedly pledged that this year’s election will be free and fair, signalling his desire for a clean break from the Mugabe era where poll results were always disputed.