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Marko PhiriApril 18, 2023
Election violence in 2018: Soldiers beat a female supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party of Nelson Chamisa outside the party's headquarters as they await the results of the general elections in August 2018 in Harare, Zimbabwe. (CNS photo/Mike Hutchings, Reuters) Election violence in 2018: Soldiers beat a female supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party of Nelson Chamisa outside the party's headquarters as they await the results of the general elections in August 2018 in Harare, Zimbabwe. (CNS photo/Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference has in recent years regularly raised concerns about political violence before elections in this southern African country. In two statements so far this year it has done the same ahead of national elections that are expected to be scheduled sometime in July or August.

In January, the bishops condemned “heinous violent crimes” after videos circulated of opposition political supporters being attacked by suspected supporters of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front.

“As the nation heads towards the harmonized elections [votes will be cast for local as well as national positions], we urge all political players to desist from the use of violence and the use of young people to commit violent crimes,” the bishops said.

Zimbabwe bishops condemned “heinous violent crimes” after videos circulated of opposition political supporters being attacked by suspected supporters of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front.

With millions of young people struggling to find work in Zimbabwe, politicians have been accused of recruiting unemployed youths in violent attacks against opponents.

As the bishops pleaded for “zero tolerance to violence,” the local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa reported the escalation of violent attacks on journalists by supporters of the ruling party. “Impunity for those who attack journalists must end,” said Tabani Moyo, the institute’s regional director.

“We have noted that with each election season journalists are targeted for attacks; we hope that this time will be different,” Mr. Moyo said.

Because of these and other concerns raised by the Catholic bishops, analysts are not expressing much confidence about the conditions for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe this summer.

“It’s highly unlikely that we will see independent media operating effectively in the run-up to the coming elections,” said Piers Pigou, head of the southern African program at the Institute of Security Studies.

In a speech on April 18, as Zimbabweans celebrated 43 years of independence from Great Britain, President Emmerson Mnangagwa vowed, not for the first time—he pledged the same before the disputed 2018 election—that the upcoming general elections would be free and fair. Mr. Mnangagwa, 80, who is seeking re-election this year, urged Zimbabweans to “say no to violence, before, during and after” the elections, according to local media.

“My government has put measures in place to ensure free, fair and credible elections,” he said, adding a warning against ​ “voices, foreign or local, inclusive of rogue N.G.O.s,” sowing “seeds of division and disharmony among us.”

The bishops’ conference in Zimbabwe has taken an active role in promoting the nation’s civil society and in voter education campaigns. That activism has for years been greeted with suspicion by government officials.

His comments did not prove reassuring to officials at Amnesty International, which issued its own statement to commemorate April 18: “Forty-three years after independence, authorities are yet to guarantee in practice the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly which are increasingly being threatened despite being guaranteed under the constitution and international law,” Flavia Mwangovya, Amnesty International’s deputy director for East and Southern Africa, said.

“As Zimbabwe approaches elections later this year, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly have come under increasing attack. Dissenting voices are being criminalized, with some opposition activists put in lengthy pre-trial detentions,” Ms. Mwangovya added.

Zimbabwe has experienced a long history of attempts at voter intimidation during election season. Pro-democracy activists have deplored what they charge is the impunity of some of the alleged perpetrators who have been linked to the ruling party. One was caught on camera calling for the assassination of the leader of the main opposition party.

Since the long and often brutal rule of the late President Robert Mugabe, a leader who never shied away from publicizing his Catholic piety and who always carried a rosary with him, opposition party supporters have been subjected to severe beatings for “voting wrongly.” In their January statement, Zimbabwe’s Catholic bishops called for an end to political campaigns that violate principles of electoral freedom.

“We all have the freedom to participate and associate not only in Church matters but in civil matters. No one can tell anyone who or which party to join,” the bishops said.

Despite calls from Mr. Mnangagwa for peaceful political campaigns, violence against opposition political supporters has only escalated, raising concerns about the upcoming national elections and the president’s ability to rein in his supporters.

Zimbabwe has experienced a long history of attempts at voter intimidation during election season.

The opposition’s demands for the police to act on political violence have also been ignored, with some retired senior security officers entering the political ring to represent Mnangagwa’s Zanu PF while also serving as senior ruling party officials.

When elections are scheduled, Mr. Mnangagwa is expected to stand once again against Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the main opposition party, Citizens Coalition for Change. Mr. Chamisa narrowly lost to Mr. Mnangagwa in the 2018 election amid claims of voter intimidation and vote manipulation.

Demands made by Mr. Chamisa to ensure an even electoral playing field, including access to voter rolls, have been ignored by Zimbabwe’s electoral commission. The commission is appointed by the president, effectively compromising its impartiality, critics contend.

In February, the bishops issued another statement, raising many of the same concerns—evidence, critics said, that the country’s prominent political actors were not heeding the bishops’ call for violence-free campaigning.

The bishops’ conference in Zimbabwe has taken an active role in promoting the nation’s civil society and in voter education campaigns. That activism has for years been greeted with suspicion by government officials, who charge that Catholic agencies cooperate with opposition forces to undermine the ruling party. The ruling party has even demanded that Catholic bishops declare their political interests because of their repeated criticism of the government.

Monica Mutsvangwa, the minister of information, previously lashed out at Catholic bishops, describing them in a widely deplored outburst as evil-minded.

When elections are scheduled, Mr. Mnangagwa is expected to stand once again against Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the main opposition party, Citizens Coalition for Change.

The bishops also raised concerns about the denial of the right to choose and vote freely because of intimidation from ruling party activists and supporters who have rallied in the streets outside voting sites during elections. Those acts have resulted in disputed ballot outcomes for years.

“Can we choose from the candidates who will present themselves, people who will lead our country on the path of economic prosperity, justice and freedom for which our brothers and sisters gave their lives in the war of liberation?” the bishops asked in their February pastoral letter, “Breaking the Unjust Fetters.”

“Many countries in Africa have witnessed the shrinking of the democratic space through the increased use of force to silence dissenting voices,” the bishops added.

The statement was soon followed by another from the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, one of many human rights defenders in the country accused by the government of disseminating anti-government information.

“We all have the freedom to participate and associate not only in Church matters, but even in civil matters. No one can tell who to vote for or which party to join; rather we encourage you to participate and to be fully involved in the life of our country,” the members of the justice and peace commission said in a statement on March 10.

As the bishops continued their call for peaceful elections, Mr. Mnangagwa made an appearance on March 19 at the celebrations of a rural parish established by Jesuit missionaries a century ago. The president donated vehicles to the Catholic Church.

The area is one of many in the country’s southwest where thousands were killed by government forces in the 1980s. Mr. Mnangagwa has been pressured by rights groups to establish a truth and reconciliation commission to study those events, known as the Gukurahundi campaign.

Zimbabwe’s Catholic bishops have called upon the government to acknowledge Gukurahundi atrocities so that families can find closure, after the justice and peace commission filed its report on the violence, “Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace.” It extensively documented testimonies of survivors.

“The government seems uninterested in seriously listening to the bishops’ concerns and entering into a dialogue to explore a way forward,” said David Harold-Barry, S.J., an Irish Jesuit who has lived and worked in Zimbabwe for almost 60 years.

“The bishops are cautious about what they say, but if their recent letter is anything to go by, they do speak their mind, even if guardedly.

“I am not sure what other options are open to them beyond writing as they did,” he added.

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