You can also listen to this podcast on iono.fm here.
JEREMY MAGGS: On August 23, Zimbabweans go to the polls and Human Rights Watch has spent a fortnight in Zimbabwe in April this year and has found that rights critical for the country’s election, such as a freedom of expression, of association and assembly, are all imperilled. More details now on this important story.
Joining me on Moneyweb@Midday is researcher Idriss Nassah. Idriss, first of all, based on your findings, how would you describe the current state of freedom in Zimbabwe, particularly in this important lead up to the upcoming election?
IDRISS NASSAH: Thank you very much for having me. Human Rights Watch, we spent some time in April and May in Zimbabwe, researching the environment in the lead up to this very important election. What we have found is that the environment does not lend itself very well to the holding of what would say credible, free and fair elections for various reasons, including what you just articulated earlier about freedom of expression, about the ability of the opposition to freely mobilise, freedom of association, the use of restrictive laws against political opponents.
Also, (there is the) threat of violence and intimidation. So we can say we have a very pervasive climate of intimidation and repression, which does not indicate that the authorities in Zimbabwe are ready to hold free, fair and credible elections.
Read: Zimbabwe is cracking down on dissent ahead of vote, Amnesty says
JEREMY MAGGS: In that long list of concerns that you have, is there a specific problem that worries you the most?
IDRISS NASSAH: I think there’s an array of problems, each one critical to the free, fair and credible elections. You have the restrictive regime that is in place at the moment, including repressive laws that have been enacted towards this election, which has the effect of curtailing the rights of citizens to freely express themselves and also to freely engage in political activities of their choice.
You also have the arbitrary detention and arrest, as well as conviction sometimes on very slim charges, of leading opposition figures, which gives the chilling effect of making people think twice before they engage in free political activity.
You also have the conduct of the police, which is another issue, the very partisan conduct of the Zimbabwe Republic Police [ZRP] in number one, disrupting, banning opposition meetings. That’s a major cause of concern.
Then also importantly is the role of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission [ZEC], by the law the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission should be a fair arbiter, it should be impartial, it should be independent of the ruling party or any other interest. But in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has a perception problem because it is seen to be controlled or manned by people who are partisan and whose credibility is in question.
JEREMY MAGGS: Idriss, are these concerns of yours countrywide or are there specific geographical areas of concern?
IDRISS NASSAH: The concerns are countrywide, and we have cases across the country of the opposition not able to freely mobilise, hold campaign meetings, hold rallies. I’ll give a few examples. In January this year, opposition activists were meeting in a place called Murewa, outside of Harare, elderly opposition party supporters who belong to the main opposition, the Citizens Coalition for Change [CCC], and at that homestead they were attacked by allegedly Zanu-PF [Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front] members, who beat them up, assaulted them, and recorded this assault.
Also, in another area of the country outside of Harare, in the lead up to this election, there’ve been many cases of violence, including last year an opposition supporter was stabbed and killed in a place called Kwekwe, way outside of Harare. So when we did our research, we spoke to human rights activists, we spoke to several lawyers, we spoke to NGOs who are also not able to go to rural communities because these in part have been declared no-go areas for the opposition.
Zimbabwe president signs law that prohibits criticism of state
Patriotism and popcorn, Zimbabwe on the edge
Bad-mouthing the state is outlawed before election in Zimbabwe
There’s also the role of the Zimbabwe traditional chiefs who mainly control large areas of the rural areas where the majority of Zimbabweans still live. Many of these traditional chiefs, and this was actually made public by the Zanu-PF vice president, Mr Kembo Mohadi, who said they had gone into an understanding with traditional chiefs, number one, not to allow the penetration of the opposition in rural areas.
Secondly, that these traditional chiefs were going to commandeer people under them to do what they call command voting, where the traditional leader in that area will frogmarch people under them to a polling station and watch over them as they cast their vote. So this is all intimidation and this is all across the country.
Another addition to that is when the opposition is not able to freely mobilise, campaign and hold meetings, it is across the country. Our research found out that from January this year to April, May, about 63 opposition rallies had either been banned by the police or disrupted by either state agents or people aligned to the ruling party. This is right across the country.
JEREMY MAGGS: Given that very concerning assessment, do you believe the Zimbabwean government in any way then is prepared to fulfil its obligations under national, regional and international law to conduct a free and fair election?
IDRISS NASSAH: So the credibility of the Zimbabwean election will be measured against the standards that are set out by the African Union’s Charter on Democracy, Election and Governance, as well as the SADC [Southern Africa Development Community] principles and guidelines governing democratic elections.
So under this, Zimbabwe is meant to observe and respect the full participation of its citizens in the political process. Under this, Zimbabwe should guarantee the freedom of expression and association, there should be political tolerance. There should be equal opportunity for all political parties to assess state media.
There should be the independence of the judiciary, the independence of the Electoral Commission and other institutions. There should be free voter education. However, unfortunately from our research, we have found out that the restrictive environment in Zimbabwe currently falls short of the standards that are set by the African Union, as well as SADC.
JEREMY MAGGS: Idriss Nassah, thank you very much indeed for joining me.