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What can communities do to protect themselves against violence? - Peace Watch 13/2010
Veritas
October 12, 2010

Facilitator’s Summary of 2nd E-Discussion Topic

“What can communities do to protect themselves against violence?”

The topic stimulated a useful debate. Responses were sent out to members of the E-discussion forum and what follows is a summary of the key suggestions. A few responses were starkly pessimistic, saying that violence is too deeply rooted and embedded in the fabric of Zimbabwean society and politics for communities to fight back – a situation attributed to lack of democracy, power-hungry politicians, a culture of impunity and lack of professionalism within the police force. On the whole though, contributors came up with positive long-term and short-term strategies for communities to deal with violence. What was of special interest were the stories that came in of practical approaches already being effectively employed in a small way by some besieged communities – strategies such as passive resistance, citizen’s arrest and “whistling against violence”. The story of a village in Makoni District, where community leaders took a courageous and principled stance against violence and harassment and succeeded, shows that with courage and leadership villages can be proactive to stop violence. While acknowledging the gravity of the problem of violence in Zimbabwe, E-Forum Discussion members offered the suggestions listed below as possible ways to confront the problem.

Protection Strategies Already Being Employed by Some Communities

1) Community Elders Reject Violence: A contributor from the Makoni District of Manicaland described how in the build-up to the last elections, the village elders pre-empted violence by going to see the political leaders in the district and youths at militia bases and declaring that they would not tolerate violence in their community. The elders used their authority derived from their role during the liberation struggle to insist on protecting the community spirit and cohesion of their village. They said the youths and their leaders were welcome to visit the village in peace to educate the people but that they should not expect anyone to be receptive to their message if they insisted on resorting to violence. It worked – the village was reported to be an oasis of calm and harmony while neighbouring communities continued to experience violent disruption and harassment. The elders had the courage of their convictions to take that principled stance. This strategy has great potential if more community leaders would be prepared to stand up and be counted.

2) Whistling Campaign: Villagers in Chipinge and Nyanga devised a whistling strategy – whereby if a person is attacked or feels an attack is imminent, he or she whistles. Those who hear the whistle also whistle and run towards where they hear the first whistle, so there the noise gets louder and more and more people converge to help the person in trouble. This strategy is intended to try and put off or confuse the attacker and at the same time mobilise people to help the person being attacked. If there are enough people to confront the attackers they can hold down the attackers and also take note of who they are. Then they are taken to a police station and the hope is that the police will actually do something. The big question is whether the police, whose partisanship and dereliction of duty caused the people to resort to this tactic in the first place, will now act professionally.

3) Citizen’s Arrest: MP Douglas Mwonzora revealed how villagers in Nyanga have resorted to citizen’s arrest. Villagers gathered for a rally he was due to address were attacked and ordered to disperse by ZANU-PF supporters wielding axes. The villagers all turned out and they outnumbered, surrounded and subdued their attackers and handed them to the police. The sequel, however, was an unhappy one: the attackers were released without charge and the police arrested and charged the villagers who had arrested the attackers.

Facilitator’s Comment: The sad conclusion is that while action of this sort may give temporary respite from violence, it is likely to backfire unless police act impartially and professionally when members of the public carry out a citizen’s arrest and take the apprehended individuals to the police.

Other discussants accused the police of being biased and not acting professionally: refusing to take reports from victims, turning a blind eye, refusing to arrest ZANU-PF perpetrators of violence, and even turning the tables and arresting the victims in such situations.

Note: Peace Watch will be doing a bulletin on citizens’ arrests and options available if one’s local police refuse to take a report.

New Strategies Suggested by E-Forum Members

  • Nullify electoral results from areas of political violence or where coercion or any other disruptions have been documented and verified during the months preceding elections. This rule should come into effect immediately and be communicated to all Zimbabweans. It would show the perpetrators of violence that their actions do not help their political parties. Those intending to disrupt participation in the ongoing constitutional outreach process and the subsequent referendum by resorting to violence and coercion would know their efforts would not benefit their political parties in any way.
Facilitator’s Comment: This measure should be included in the forthcoming Electoral Laws Amendment being drafted under the auspices of the three GPA political parties; the amendment should also ensure authority is given to the Electoral Commission to see that it is enforced.
  • Introduce Community Radio Stations to give communities information making them aware of their rights and the obligation of the police to ensure the rule of law. Lack of information leaves communities to rely on rumours which create suspicion and lack of trust. This creates a fertile breeding ground for violence. When there are outbreaks of violence communities can broadcast what is happening to them so that the rest of the country and the outside world knows what is happening. Also, giving more information to communities to empower them to focus on peace, development and improving the quality of their lives, would create communities more able to resist propaganda and intimidation.
  • Communities organize themselves into self-defence units with the hope that faced with such a united front, the police would be compelled to act professionally and impartially in discharging their duties to protect all citizens. Currently they know they can take advantage of divisions and mistrust to drive a wedge between groups by interpreting and enforcing the law selectively.
  • Introduce a name and shame campaign to enable communities to identify and expose the promoters, sponsors and perpetrators of violence as well as contraventions of human rights. The culprits responsible for intimidation, harassment and violence may enjoy impunity locally but would find it difficult to transact any affairs internationally.
  • Set up early warning systems when violence is threatened.

Facilitator’s Comment: Community Broadcasting could facilitate this – but until we have community radio stations perhaps this could be done through texting on mobile phones. This is what people did in communities where violence was threatened in the run-up to the recent Kenyan Referendum.

  • Keep political allegiances for the ballot box – be compliant when asked/forced to attend rallies, don’t wear “opposition” party regalia, etc. This keeps political parties in the dark about the extent of the support they enjoy. Politicians and parties that sponsor violence and coercion only get the jolt on polling day when they are rejected by voters.

Wishful thinking

These were suggestions which discussants felt would help but didn’t see happening in the near future.

  • Retire top officials in the police force who are complicit in fomenting political violence and turning a blind eye when communities come under siege.
  • Retrain all security forces so that they serve the people and not a political party

Facilitator’s Comment: Article 13 of the GPA, recognising that “state institutions do not belong to any political party and should be impartial in the discharge of their duties”, provides for the training curriculum of the uniformed forces to include human rights, international humanitarian law and statute law “to inculcate a greater understanding and full appreciation of their roles and duties in a multi-party democratic system”.

Double Edged Swords

These were suggestions which were made but at the same time the contributors pointed out they could be dangerous strategies.

  • Communities refuse en masse to attend political rallies- downside is that this could backfire and spark a violent confrontation.
  • Communities identify perpetrators of violence and confront them en masse - downside is that the army, police and militia will react heavy-handedly, sparking worse violence.

Facilitator’s Conclusion

The discussion left no doubt that violence is a cancer in Zimbabwe that needs to be eradicated. It was also clear from the views expressed that contributors had no illusions about how heavily the odds were stacked against ordinary people hoping for peace and democracy. All felt that long-term measures to combat violence are necessary and that the situation is not likely to change much before the next elections. Therefore it is imperative that all communities start looking into ways they can pre-empt, stop and report violence. Some communities were reported to be passive as they felt they were damned if they acted to defend themselves and damned if they did not. It is important to share ideas on means of protection, and offer encouragement and solidarity.

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