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  • Truth, justice, reconciliation and national healing - Index of articles

  • Curse of political violence: Time to break the cycle of terror
    Professor Lloyd Sachikonye, OSISA
    June 30, 2011

    Moses Mzila-Ndlovu spent the 2011 Easter weekend in jail at Lupane in Matabeleland North Province. A co-Minister for the Organ of National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration (ONHRI), he had recently made outspoken comments about the Gukurahundi violence in the 1980s, and strongly argued for restitution for victims of that episode of state violence. Mzila-Ndlovu was soon joined in jail by another advocate for justice for Gukurahundi victims, Father Marko Mnkhandla. A more cynical and punitive discrediting of ONHRI an institution set up under the Global Political Agreement (GPA) would be difficult to find.

    Perhaps nothing symbolises more dramatically the dysfunctionality of certain institutions under the Inclusive Government (IG) than this deliberate assault by the state security establishment (sometimes termed securocrats) on an institution ostensibly set up to work towards transitional justice and national healing. GPA and political violence.

    Yet there had initially been high hopes that the advent of the IG would herald a new era of democratic transition and a decline in political violence. Indeed, the IG text itself stated that the parties agreed to 'renounce and desist from the promotion and use of violence, and take all measures necessary to ensure that the structures and institutions they control are not engaged in violence'. It went on to state that prosecuting authorities would expedite, where sufficient evidence existed, the prosecution of people accused of politically-related offences arising out of, or connected with, the March and June elections of 2008. With specific reference to ONHRI, this was an institution set up to advise on what measures 'might be necessary and practicable to achieve national healing, cohesion and unity in respect of victims of pre- and post- independence political conflicts'.

    But very little headway has been made in addressing either contemporary or historical violence. Despite individual efforts by ministers such as Mzila-Ndlovu, ONHRI has found it very difficult to earn credibility for its mission and activities in the wider Zimbabwean society.

    In a recent book, When a State Turns on its Citizens (Jacana Media, Johannesburg), we observed that political violence has deep roots in Zimbabwean society, and would therefore require a holistic and concerted approach to address it (Sachikonye, 2011). First, the roots can be traced to colonial state structures and practices, which ruthlessly suppressed moderate African nationalism in the 1950s, with the unintended consequence of fostering a more radical, uncompromising African nationalism in the 1960s. The arsenal of the colonial state included sjamboks, dogs, guns and poison as well as torture against nationalist activists and liberation fighters. Most of these weapons and repressive techniques were inherited by the new state in 1980 almost hook, line and sinker.

    To these were added, the tradition of nationalist inter-party violence, which had initially spread in the 1960s and had then been rejuvenated after independence. The significance of the new post-independence era was the greater scale of this violence, drawing on immense state resources that resulted in pogroms such as Gukurahundi and the repression of both opposition parties and also civil society organisations, especially after 2000.

    Inter-party violence and terror reached its peak between 2000 and 2008 when ZANU-PF increasingly utilised state agencies, war veterans and militia during election campaigns. Hundreds of opposition party activists and supporters, mainly from MDC-T, were killed in the 2000, 2002 and 2008 elections while thousands were injured and thousands more displaced. The intensity and ferocity of the violence resulted in the discrediting of the 2008 run-off presidential election. As the country heads towards another election, the tempo of inter- party violence appears to be increasing. In the wider society, this has had the effect of triggering terror and reviving the trauma of 2008. In this scheme of things, the levels of human insecurity are high because the police and other security agencies are viewed as partisan, and therefore unreliable as custodians of the law and safety.

    However, another major dimension of political violence is what is sometimes termed intra-party violence, which has rocked ZANU-PF as well as the two MDC factions. Although usually mild and non-fatal, this mode of violence often rears its ugly head during party primary elections. While preparing for its April 2011 congress, MDC-T experienced widely reported violence between groups contending for top provincial positions in Bulawayo and Masvingo. The intra-party violence in MDC-T has prompted anxiety about what has been termed the 'zanufication' of the party with respect to the use of violence to resolve political disputes. This followed similar intra-party violence in ZANU-PF in the build-up to its annual conference in 2009. This culture of violence even seems to have begun to spread to some civic organisations, such as student and youth groups, and even to churches such as the Anglican Church with internal conflicts threatening to tear them apart. Thus, consciously or unconsciously, the culture and method of violence once the monopoly of ZANU-PF seem to have been adopted by other parties and civic institutions.

    An ominous development, especially since 2008, has been the use of political violence in the format of economic penalties against opponents. This became a weapon of choice against rural and urban MDC-T supporters during the presidential run-off campaign in 2008. For example, property such as cattle, goats, maize and farming equipment was confiscated by ZANU-PF supporters and militia, especially in rural areas. Extensive case-studies on this economic victimization have been carried out by organisations like the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ, 2009) and the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (2009). In some instances, victims suffered both political violence and confiscation of property as punishment for supporting the opposition. A sample in the Zaka district of Masvingo Province showed 86 percent of victims had some of their livestock, crops, food, clothes, radios, solar and kitchen equipment, cash and other items confiscated by ZANU-PF supporters (CCJPZ, 2009:98). In one of the wards in the district, MDC-T polling agents were fined goats or chickens for the electoral role they performed.

    In a sense, economic penalties against opposition members were not a completely new phenomenon. They were already discriminated against by being denied food aid that is channelled through state and ZANU-PF structures. What was a new and sinister element was the expropriation of assets that support victims' livelihoods for unlawful gain by perpetrators. Communities experienced politically motivated economic sanctions and taxes such as these against opposition supporters on a systematic scale.

    Sooner or later, both political and economic violence was bound to provoke retaliatory violence from those that had borne its brunt. In 2009 and 2010, there were reports of some rural communities reclaiming their confiscated or looted property, including livestock. In some instances, this resulted in intra- community violence during which police and state authorities tended to side with those linked to ZANU-PF. In urban centres, the reclamation of property, including housing, flared up into inter-party violence in which the youth played a prominent role. Sadly, the cycle of violence continues precisely because impunity is tolerated by state agencies, whose role should be to protect the law and rights of victims.

    Of course, the focus on violence and impunity does not do justice to several of the genuine achievements of the IG notably in restoring some measure of economic stability and growth, resuscitating basic social services and boosting media pluralism (although it remains quite limited). Yet it should be admitted that the ambitious hopes to address political violence and partisan policing, as spelt out in the GPA, remain largely unfulfilled. This is not to say that important hopes and objectives should be abandoned, such as the injunctions that:

    • state organs do not belong to any political party and should be impartial in the discharge of their duties;
    • all state organs and institutions should strictly observe the principle of the Rule of Law and remain non- partisan and impartial; and,
    • recruitment policies and practices should be conducted in a manner that ensures that no political or other form of favouritism is practised. (GPA, 2008)

    One of the major obstacles preventing a democratic transition as was the case during the 2008 elections is that certain state institutions oppose it and continue to resist the implementation of key provisions of the GPA. As we have observed, they have undermined new institutions such as ONHRI, as well as blocking the professionalisation of the police, the intelligence service and the military. They continue to obstruct the transformation of the current 'police state'.

    Yet the agenda and momentum for transitional justice and security sector reform should continue to be supported. Zimbabwe is a deeply scarred society whose psyche has been shaped by over a half century of state and party violence. Mobilised and controlled through various militaristic operations, such as Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 among others, Zimbabwe is a traumatised society in dire need of an end to the cycle of violence and of a transition from the current authoritarianism to a genuinely open and tolerant democracy.

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