Human rights campaigner calls for restraint in Zimbabwe
After witnessing intimidation during the election, Jestina Mukoko is looking to the future
Jestina Mukoko: “We are talking about a citizenry that has been intimidated over years, these are people who are vulnerable.” Photograph: Gary Walsh
For three weeks in 2008 Jestina Mukoko’s family believed she was dead. Her brother spent weeks desperately searching through the city morgues after Mukoko was abducted at dawn and taken from her home on the outskirts of Harare in an unmarked car.
It turned out she was alive, but incarcerated. The Zimbabwean human rights defender spent 21 days in solitary confinement before being moved to a maximum security prison for 68 days.
“In terms of my work around human rights I actually think the experience made me more resolute. It was a feather in my cap. Yes, it was terrible but, as someone who worked with an organisation that documents cases of abductions and torture, I thought it was a call of fate for me to go through that. Now, if I talk to someone about torture I understand what they’re talking about. When they talk about abduction I know exactly what they’re talking about. But it’s not something I would want any other human rights defender to go through.”
For more than a decade Mukoko has held the position of director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, an NGO which monitors and documents violence and human rights abuses in the southern African nation. The project was established in 2000 and has dedicated 18 years to tracking the threats, repression, harassment and abductions that became common occurrences under the rule of Robert Mugabe.
Most recently, the NGO was involved in tracking what it describes as tactics of intimidation in the lead-up to the general election in July which saw Emmerson Mnangagwa named president of Zimbabwe.
The leader of the ruling Zanu-PF party, Mnangagwa replaced Mugabe as president of Zimbabwe after the 94-year-old autocrat was ousted from power last November. He went on to narrowly win the nation’s historic presidential election on July 30th.
However, Nelson Chamisa, leader of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, rejected the Zanu-PF victory and filed a legal challenge to overturn the win, arguing that the election had been rigged. His appeal was unanimously dismissed by the constitutional court last Friday and Mnangagwa was formally declared the winner of the presidential election. He was sworn in as president on Sunday.
Although the election was pegged as an opportunity for the people of Zimbabwe to finally break away from decades of repressive rule under Mugabe, Mukoko says fear tactics and threats were widespread ahead of the vote, particularly in rural areas. She says many people were forced to hand over their registration card and serial numbers “to ensure that people would vote in a particular way” and that the introduction of biometric voter registration made people fearful that their votes could be tracked and used against them.
“They would actually tell people to ‘vote wisely’. In some cases they would say ‘we’ll keep the registration card for safekeeping’. We are talking about a citizenry that has been intimidated over years, these are people who are vulnerable. This just instils fear in the electorate.”
Promises of food and agricultural subsidies were also used to convince people in rural areas to vote a certain way, says Mukoko. “It worked as a carrot and stick. As people went into the polling booths these things became part of the decision. We recognise that citizens were free to associate with whoever they wanted during the campaign period. But at the same time it would have been better if intimidation had not been a part of this election.”
International observers from the European Union and the United States, who were invited to monitor the elections for the first time in more than 15 years, also raised concerns that people felt intimidated to vote a certain way.
The day after the election, supporters of the opposition movement took to the streets protesting against the results and arguing that the election had been rigged. The army was deployed to the capital city, where violence broke out and six people were killed. Mukoko worries that inflammatory language used by opposition leaders following the results incited some demonstrators to violence.
She also criticised the response by the military in opening fire on the crowds. “If demonstrators get unruly there are other ways and means that police can use to gain control of the crowd. They could have used rubber bullets, water cannons or tear gas to disperse the crowd.”
I would say Zimbabweans need to restrain themselves and think in terms of building peace for our country
Many of the people caught up in the violence were going about their daily business and were not actually participating in the protest, she adds. “There was one woman who was coming from her workplace and was trying to get away from the melee and go home who met with her death that day. There was another person with a disability who was deaf and dumb who had a bullet go through his shoulder. That bullet was lodged there for days.”
The violence also spread outside the capital and into the surrounding region of Mashonaland, with reports of polling agents being targeted and homes being burned to the ground, says Mukoko. Some human rights defenders have fled the country fearing for their safety, while female relatives of political activists have been harassed and intimidated since the election, she adds.
Mukoko hopes the live broadcast of the constitutional court deliberations on Chamisa’s appeal of the general election results, and the court’s subsequent dismissal of the appeal, will offer transparency to the Zimbabwean electorate and prevent the outbreak of any further violence.
“I would say Zimbabweans need to restrain themselves and think in terms of building peace for our country. We would encourage the leaders of political parties to reign in their supporters so we don’t have any more outbreaks of violence.
“We want every Zimbabwean to be able to enjoy their rights according to the constitution and, where there is injustice, that those who are responsible account for their actions so that we fight the issue of impunity.”