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Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa (3rd R) inspects the guard of honor at the country's 43rd Independence Day celebrations held in Mount Darwin, Mashonaland Central province, on April 18, 2023.  © 2023 JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP via Getty Images

(Johannesburg) – Zimbabwe’s army commander has openly stated that the country’s security forces intend to play a partisan political role, threatening future elections and those participating in them, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 29, 2024, the Zimbabwe National Army commander, Lt. General Anselem Sanyatwe, was quoted as saying that people would be marched to polling stations “whether you like it or not,” and that the ruling party, ZANU-PF, would “rule forever.” Since the August 2023 general election, in which ZANU-PF failed to win an outright majority in parliament, the country has witnessed several by-elections in constituencies where opposition members of parliament were dismissed in a bizarre ploy. The dismissals were seen as an attempt to tilt the balance of power in ZANU-PF’s favor.

“The Zimbabwe military commander’s open endorsement of the ruling party not only threatens the fairness of elections but opens the door for security force abuses against voters, the opposition, and civil society organizations,” said Allan Ngari, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Zimbabwe’s security forces need to comply with the country’s laws and regulations that uphold its international human rights obligations to ensure that elections are free and fair.”

For decades, Zimbabwe’s military and other state security forces have interfered in the nation’s political and electoral affairs in violation of citizens’ civil and political rights. Zimbabwe’s constitution states that no member of the security services in exercising their functions may act in a partisan manner, further the interests of any political party, or cause or violate anyone’s fundamental rights or freedoms. However, senior members of the security forces have routinely ignored these provisions with impunity.

The government should take urgent steps to end the military’s participation in partisan politics, including by disciplining or prosecuting military officers who violate laws and regulations that prohibit the security forces from directly supporting any political party.

Zimbabwe has a history of elections that fall far short of international and regional standards, characterized by the involvement of the military in deeply flawed electoral processes. The government has not remedied some of the flaws of the August 2023 election that Southern African Development Community (SADC) observers documented.

Election periods in Zimbabwe, especially in 1985, 1990, 2000, 2002, 2005, and 2008, were characterized by widespread political violence, committed mainly by ZANU-PF, its allies, and government security agencies, including sections of the army.

These problems were particularly evident during the 2008 elections, when the army was credibly implicated in numerous systematic abuses that led to the killing of up to 200 people, the beating and torture of 5,000 more, and the displacement of 36,000.

The 2017 coup against President Robert Mugabe further entrenched the military in its partisanship with the ruling party and interference in civilian affairs. The military leadership and some sections of the army have, since the coup, taken highly visible steps that adversely affect the political environment.

Lt. General Sanyatwe’s recent statements that militate against the holding of free, fair, and credible elections raise the urgency to carry out reforms to ensure that state security forces do not threaten future democratic elections and the electoral affairs of the country, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Zimbabwe is party, states that every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without discrimination because of political opinion or other unreasonable restrictions, “to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”

SADC heads of state, who will meet on August 17 in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, for their 44th summit, should press the Zimbabwe government to ensure the political neutrality of its security forces and noninterference in the country’s civilian and electoral affairs.

Zimbabwe is party to the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, established to promote regular free and fair, transparent, credible and peaceful democratic elections. Under these principles, countries commit to take all necessary measures and precautions to prevent political violence, intolerance and intimidation, including ensuring the neutrality of security forces in providing election security.

“Security force commanders need to speak and act in a manner that reflects a strictly neutral political position in accordance with Zimbabwe’s constitution and international law,” Ngari said. “Authorities should take appropriate disciplinary action against officers in the security forces, regardless of rank, who violate laws and regulations prohibiting partisan conduct.”

 

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