The last time Zimbabwe made widespread international headlines occurred as the country descended into violence following the contested 2008 presidential elections. That chapter in Zimbabwean history ended with the Global Political Agreement (GPA) that split power between President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The final conditions of the GPA are set to be fulfilled this year with a referendum on a new constitution and new presidential elections. But despite the appearance of moving forward, a closer look at recent events shows that all is not well in Zimbabwe.
A rash of new arrests of civil society leaders are just the tip of the iceberg but also highlight the problems facing a legitimate transition of power later this year. ZANU PF’s national conference in December ended with a commitment to deregister “errant NGOs.” Almost immediately, the government started targeting the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) by arresting multiple employees and the organization’s director along with charging the organization itself with illegal voter registration. More recently, the government introduced a new law that harshly regulates youth organizations as members of the National Youth Development Trust were arrested and their office in Bulawayo raided. Last week, police raided the office and seized equipment from the Zimbabwe Peace Project which tracks political violence and also broke up a peaceful protest by Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) with arrests, beatings and teargas.
These incidents depict the general backdrop of Zimbabwean politics today as the referendum on the draft constitution approaches in March. WOZA’s Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams spoke at a roundtable event in Washington, DC last month about these challenges and the difficulties of pushing for progress in such a politicized setting. Both women were optimistic then that in the end, real reform could be made this year. But in some corners, such cautious optimism is waning. At this point even if the referendum and subsequent election are peaceful, the lack of legitimacy for the result is pretty much guaranteed.
The reason for this largely lies in the first sentence of this post: the last time people paid attention to Zimbabwe was during the violent aftermath of the 2008 election. Once that subsided, attention turned elsewhere. Meanwhile, not much actually changed inside the country even with the GPA. The pro-democracy group Sokwanele released a report in December 2012 detailing gross violations of the GPA by all parties involved, although ZANU PF dominated in the number of infractions. The political violence and corruption seen so clearly in 2008 never fully stopped which means that the reforms needed for a legitimate democratic process are still lacking. Along the way, regional actors such as SADC largely enabled the lack of reforms by consistently siding with ZANU PF, leaving few avenues for the people of Zimbabwe to seek government accountability.
With the constitutional referendum set for March 16, the consequences of such crackdowns are growing. Regardless of the outcome, the referendum is just a warm up for the general elections. The recent attacks on civil society are just one sign pointing to a repeat of the contentious elections of 2002 and 2008. If that is to be avoided, now is the time for the world to start paying attention to Zimbabwe again.