Zim Elections Expose Africa to Ridicule

Image: Flickr, Commonwealth Secretariat
Image: Flickr, Commonwealth Secretariat

The upshot is that the South African government and SADC have seriously compromised their credibility in global eyes by rubber-stamping a process that even domestic observers within Zimbabwe have disputed.

Grand visions of African renaissance and New Deals embodied by NEPAD and the Commission for Africa respectively, recently came face to face with the double-speak of African diplomacy. In the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s March 31 election, disputes amongst the various observer missions raise serious questions about the depth of Africa’s commitments to democratic governance.

Amid allegations of massive vote-rigging and counting anomalies by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), observer missions from the South African government and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) announced that the polls were credible and reflected the will of the Zimbabwean people. “The poll was peaceful, transparent, credible and well managed,” said the SADC observers, headed by South African Cabinet Minister Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka. Foreign civil society observers were denied accreditation by the Zimbabwean authorities, as was the SADC Parliamentary Forum, whose observers were critical of the 2002 presidential elections. President Mugabe cherry-picked government missions from ‘friendly’ countries and organizations to observe the polls.

Richard Boucher of the US State Department challenged the African governments to substantiate their endorsement of the polls. “I would have to ask them what they think their basis is for saying that. We’ve put out what we think is the basis for viewing this election as seriously tainted and not free and fair,” he said. The ANC Today newsletter of 1-7 April berates local and international media for prejudging the election as unfair, but levels no such censure at ANC observers who prejudged that the election would be free and fair immediately after their arrival in Zimbabwe.

Reports by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), a domestic coalition that deployed over 6000 observers nationwide, highlight the climate of fear and the intimidation of voters, as well as serious discrepancies in the counting process. If we, as Africans, believe in grassroots democracy, we should be galvanized to protest when our governments dismiss such complaints, as the South Africans reportedly did in Harare last· month. In the Manyame constituency, ZESN reported that the official tally of 14 812 votes at close of polling had unaccountably expanded to 23 760 votes by the time the election results were announced. The MDC has submitted allegations of similar discrepancies for more than 30 constituencies. The United States, which sent out 25 observer teams of diplomats from its Harare embassy, said there were “several patterns of irregularities that raised concerns about the freeness and fairness of the process”, particularly the lack of transparency in tabulating vote counts.

Regional obstinacy in the face of such evidence cannot be explained away by the “quiet diplomacy” tactic. South Africa’s stance on Zimbabwe was meant to reassure the Mugabe regime and gently persuade it to change, but it is not holding water and diplomatically fails to reassure anyone. Instead, it sends out the message that it’s okay to ignore human rights and have sloppy elections, undermining South Africa’s own strengths in these areas, painstakingly built up over the past eleven years by institutions such as the Independent Electoral and Human Rights Commissions. Elinor Sisulu of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition says she hoped the SA example would spread to the region, however there seems to be an attitude of “election apartheid”, where the standards that South Africa aspires to for itself are not upheld for its neighbours. She lambastes the South African observers for finding the Zimbabwe “elections credible on grounds that they would never accept in South Africa.”

More worrying still, the observer missions’ partisanship directly jeopardises the work of the AU, NEPAD and the fledgling African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), designed to improve governance on the continent. In turning a blind eye to the alleged fraud in the Zimbabwe elections, a dangerous precedent may be set for the same dubious processes to pass unchecked in upcoming elections in countries like Angola and Liberia. Mechanisms of cheating, after all, are the same the world over, and thieves learn from their peers too.

On the other hand, Africa continually has the begging bowl out, requesting assistance from multilateral institutions and Northern governments on the tacit understanding that governance will improve, that corruption will stop and that democratic process will be strengthened. The Blair Commission has responded with proposals for debt write-off, increased development aid and fairer trade conditions. Britain has promised to use its concurrent chairing of both the G8 and the European Union to champion the cause of African development.

But now that Britain, America and the European Union have added their voice to that of Zimbabweans who query the election results, they find that the very leaders who espouse the rhetoric of democracy and good governance, are engaged in coating a repressive regime with a thin lacquer of credibility.

In a surprising and somewhat heartening move, the African Union observer mission, which initially hailed the election as “technically competent and transparent”, has called for an investigation into the alleged fraud. The Ghanaian head of the AU team, Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, said: “The MDC has alleged that there are serious discrepancies in the official results released by the ZEC for several constituencies. It is hoped that both the ZEC and the ESC will promptly look into the allegations with a view to assuring Zimbabweans of the authenticity of the results of the elections.”

Meanwhile violations of human rights continue and proliferate. Recent news articles on post-election reprisals against opposition supporters report that people are being beaten up and denied food. Attacks are expected to intensify after the departure of foreign election observers from the country. Food insecurity in the country is increasing, with many children suffering from kwashiorkor. Government attempts to silence publicity of the food crisis include the expulsion of a Sky News team during the election period. Once the global spotlight shifts away from Zimbabwe, it is ordinary Zimbabwean citizens who will bear the social and economic consequences of the current regime’s policies. As Venetia Govender, who has worked extensively in Zimbabwe, states, “ A single election doesn’t deliver a democracy. The social and economic crisis in Zimbabwe continues.”