Outstanding Democratic Reforms in Zimbabwe: an idea whose time and champions have come!

By Tabani Nyoni

There has been curiously an intense (alternative) media and public debates in Zimbabwe around the expiry of contract terms of service chiefs and their eligibility for the contract renewal. This is more than a legal debate; it's a politically contested one too. Only the alternative (independent) media has covered this as a public interest issue. The latest on the issue is that the President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai met for a crunch meeting on Monady (February 6, 2012) to discuss several issues relating to the implementation of the GPA and the re-appointment of police commissioner general Augustine Chihuri. Only civil society and/or a section of the inclusive government (two MDCs) have been calling for service chiefs' ouster. ZANU PF section of the current government and its controlled state media has ignored this issue, a usual strategy for agenda denial. This debate is just but the tip of the iceberg in understanding the broader debates around the blocked democratic transition in Zimbabwe.

This debate comes barely a week after civic groups from Zimbabwe led by Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, sought audience with targeted AU leaders and offices in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to lobby the AU on the need for "reforms before elections in Zimbabwe". The identified specific reforms were the media, electoral and legislative reforms as well as a new constitution. A look at all these reforms reveals that should they see the light of the day, they will in many ways drastically alter the role and influence of Zimbabwe's security sector in Zimbabwe's politics. Expected outcomes would also include depoliticizing the military and the police, realigning these institutions so that they are non-partisan and owe allegiance to the constitution of Zimbabwe. Consequently, this would mean citizens having greater access to a public sphere that regulates of associational life. It would expand and democratize this valuable space in the society where citizens should congregate freely to discuss issues of common interest (including political interest of regime change if they so wish). This is important, particularly because this space is institutionalized to regulate the state by influencing political, economic and social life.

The capacity of this space (through organized citizens and/or civil society) to monitor and criticize the current inclusive government's adherence to the democratic practices as expressed in the provisions of the Global Political Agreement has been diminished. There still exist in Zimbabwe today a number of structural, institutional and attitudinal arrangements that enhance the state's capacity to prevent its citizens from discussing moral and political issues, especially those that scrutinize the state's conduct or analyze the validity and effectiveness of its power distribution. One specific example of these is the notorious Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which has been criticized for being more of a re-enactment of Rhodesian Front's LOMA (1960), a legal instrument used by the colonial government to suppress organized citizens against colonialism and for independence.

Even in independence Zimbabwe, this Act has been inherited former freedom fighters to provide for significant restrictions in freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and movement. Under this POSA, civic society groups and opposition political parties have suffered under the exceedingly wide and far-reaching powers given to the police to take any measures to suppress public meetings. This scenario has assisted or has been assisted by Zimbabwe's politically partisan police that often use this provision under the Act to restrict organizations considered to be critical of government from organizing meetings. On many occasions, Bulawayo Agenda has been denied police clearance to hold its meetings and the excuse given has been that they are a "political organization". Just last week this organization took the Matabeleland North police, the Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri and the Home Affairs co-ministers Kembo Mohadi and Theresa Makoni to court as respondents and were granted and interim order barring police from prohibiting the stated meetings. The order also declared that the "actions of the responsible authority do not depict any cogent grounds and therefore unlawfully prohibited the public meeting to applicant intended to convene." In a landmark statement worth noting, the magistrate further ordered "the police, its agents or anyone acting under police instruction, to stop disturbing or interfering with the civic body's workshop to be held at Matshabalala Hall on Saturday." Despite this order, the police further disrupted the proceedings of this meeting when it was finally held in total defiance of the court order!

There are many reasons for this. Sections 15 and 16 of POSA give the police authority to take away the citizen's right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression guaranteed by a number of international instruments. One specific example is Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention. POSA's provisions that criminalize the "publication/communication of statements, which may be prejudicial to very broadly defined state interests and the publication, or communication of information that may be deemed defamatory and/or cause the public to defame the president", violate this convention. Citizen victims of this provision include a Roman Catholic Priest Fr. Mnkandla whose case is still in the courts. He is being prosecuting for daring to hold a church memorial service in honor of the victims of the state sponsored Gukurahundi atrocities in Silwane village of Lupane. It appears this church gathering exposed some of the state sponsored 1983 brutal killings of innocent citizens in Matabeleland that claimed 52 people from that said village, including 10 family members that were burnt to death in the same hut! It therefore does not become difficult to understand why the police and the whole security sector are essentially seen as both a hostage and a political institution. In one of the numerous incidents, in June 2011, a senior member of the Zimbabwe National Army, Brigadier -General Nyikayaramba declared that, " ZANU PF and state security were inseparable." Barely six months later, he was promoted to the rank of Major General!

Citizens must understand how much this state of affairs is detrimental to the common good of all citizens of this country. Free social, economic and political interaction helps individuals to develop socially, to shape their identities, to foster values suitable for democracy, and to learn to deal with conflict in productive ways. Moreover, civil society should be understood as training ground that "grooms citizen, prepares them for civic participation and political engagement. Sociologists in social change theory advance the notion that ideas take the center stage and people remain the audience. In fact, the legendary Victor Hugo succinctly captures it when he notes "There is one thing stronger than all armies of the World, and that is an idea whose time has come." It is this idea of a democracy that gives citizens their space that has been resisted by ZANU PF and the security sector "with all the vigor of antibodies attacking and intruding virus." This is not surprising; this idea whose time has come threatens to make alterations to the "power, prestige, position and satisfaction with who they are, what they believe, and what they cherish." This explains why ZANU PF has created a siege mentality and this, to justify its perpetuation of the war agenda on a section of its citizenry that demands an accountable and legitimate government.

David Bornstein notes that "if ideas are to take root and spread, therefore, they need champions -obsessive people who have the skill, motivation, energy and a bullheadedness to do whatever is necessary to move forward: to persuade, to inspire, seduce, cajole, enlighten, touch hearts, alleviate fears, shift perceptions, articulate meanings and artfully maneuver them through the system." My observation is that in Zimbabwe today, the civic society leaders, community leaders, opposition political party leaders, church leaders, traditional leaders have chosen to be the champions of the idea of a better Zimbabwe. A better Zimbabwe is one where citizens are assured of surviving cholera, typhoid, and HIV and AIDS. A country where citizens enjoy the dignity of being born as a human being, a nation where the security of citizens is the prime existence of a political regime and its instruments of force, that is a glimpse of the idea of a better Zimbabwe, an idea whose time and champions have come!

Tabani Nyoni is an activist. He also serves as Spokesperson of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition

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