HARARE, 20 September 2011 (IRIN) – Earlier this month Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was telling MPs in parliament – to loud cheers from both side of the house – that there would be “zero tolerance” of political violence, while outside the building, supporters of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were being severely beaten by Mugabe supporters, as police stood by.
About 11 MDC supporters needed hospitalization, including MDC councillor Victor Zifodya who sustained head injuries. “The police know that ZANU-PF supporters are behind this but they appear to be afraid to arrest them,” MDC youth spokesperson Maxwell Katsande told IRIN.
Tadiwa Choto, a victim of political violence during the 2008 elections, told IRIN if ZANU-PF can engage in violence while Mugabe addresses parliament, it illustrates “either they don’t listen to him [Mugabe] any more or that he is aware of these acts of violence while saying the right things in order to please SADC [Southern African Development Community].”
The disconnect between political realities on the ground and public statements was also evident during the SADC security troika meeting in Zambia some six months ago which called for “the immediate end of violence, intimidation, hate speech, harassment and any other form of action that contradicts the letter and spirit” of the unity government – but the violence continues.
Brian Raftopoulos, a senior researcher at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, told IRIN political violence was the domain of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and sporadic acts of violence by the MDC paled into insignificance by comparison.
“Violence has been a central electoral tool [of ZANU-PF] since 2000 [when the MDC emerged as a viable opposition to ZANU-PF rule], as it has been for most of the post-independence period. Since 2000 it has intensified,” he said.
But he said SADC was “keeping a closer-eye” on political violence and it was unlikely there would be a repeat of it in any forthcoming election, potentially as early as next year.
Violence peaked during the disputed 2008 election in which ZANU-PF lost its majority in parliament for the first time since independence, and Tsvangirai narrowly missed securing the presidential vote in the first round, amid widespread claims of vote-rigging. Tsvangirai subsequently withdrew from the second round in protest against political violence.
The MDC says about 200 people were killed, thousands injured and tens of thousands displaced during the 2008 electoral violence.
The Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) said in a recent statement it was “appalled by the ongoing use of violence and brutal attacks on members of the public” and the failure of police “to respond in timely fashion and arrest all those responsible.”
The ZPP said in July 2011 it recorded 910 incidents of violence and human rights abuses.
Raftopoulos said ZANU-PF does have levels of support, but when “confronted with losing power”, as in 2008, political violence becomes “a central part of ZANU-PF’s capacity to rule”.
ZANU-PF had also become “fractious”, he said – illustrated by its desire to hold early elections, as the party had no “national figure” to replace Mugabe amid mounting reports of the 87-year-old’s deteriorating health.
Election announcement sparks violence
Mugabe’s recent announcement that elections should be held by March 2012 at the latest – although analysts say the holding of a poll could no longer be set unilaterally by Mugabe and required consensus both from the MDC and SADC – led to violence across Harare, while some members of the army went on the rampage assaulting civilians at random.
The National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), an NGO campaigning for a democratic constitution, said in a recent statement: “We note that the escalation of violence is as a result of President Mugabe‘s pronouncements that elections will be held next year in March and it seems the political parties are now in campaign mood.
”Is it possible for someone to just leave their homes to go and beat up people at parliament without being provoked?”
“The violence signals instability in our country and must be quelled before it fuels to the levels we saw before the 2008 elections… We are, however, worried about the partisanship of our police force who are only shifting the blame to the MDC while leaving those from ZANU-PF,” NCA said.
Violence is also not limited to the streets: MDC MPs and a priest were also assaulted inside parliament in June: Their attackers demanded that a parliamentary debate on the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Bill be deferred.
Didymus Mutasa, the presidential affairs minister, said his party stood by those who attacked MDC parliamentarians inside the house, telling the media: “Is it possible for someone to just leave their homes to go and beat up people at parliament without being provoked?”
SADC’s ability, beyond occasional rhetoric, to curb or end political violence in Zimbabwe was limited both by its capacity constraints, and the few enforcement mechanisms it had available, Judy Smith-Höhn, a senior researcher at the African Conflict Prevention Programme at the Pretoria-based think-tank the Institute for Security Studies, told IRIN.
Zimbabwe could be expelled from SADC, but this was unlikely as it was a founding member of the regional body; and SADC sanctions were unlikely since the organization had been campaigning for their removal since 2002, Smith-Höhn said.
The nearly decade-old targeted sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union (EU) banning travel and freezing the bank accounts of individuals and companies linked to Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, has become politically expedient for ZANU-PF: Mugabe routinely blames economic woes and food insecurity on the sanctions, and SADC has also pitched in on Mugabe’s side.
Raftopoulos said there needed to be a “calibrated approach” to sanctions by the US and EU, who should look to reward progress with the suspension of some sanctions.