Zimbabwe elections an acid test for Africa’s nascent democracy

Former Robert Mugabe ally Emmerson Mnangagwa hopes to keep the ZANU-PF party in power -- but a recent poll had Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change just three percent behind
Zimbabweans go to the polls tomorrow in what will definitely be a momentous moment for a country smarting from decades of misrule.

It will be the first time the southern African nation, rich in diamonds and copper but fraying at the edges due to bad economic policies, will hold a post-Robert Mugabe General Election.

The main contenders for the presidency - Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zanu-PF and MDC’s Nelson Chamisa - have left nothing to chance in their battle to win and lead a Zimbabwean renaissance. The election has attracted a record 23 presidential candidates.  

Should the MDC candidate win, it will be a seismic power shift. If the vote goes the other way, it will be yet another extension of Zanu-PF’s political stranglehold since 1980.

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But for Mnangagwa, a man under whose watch power slipped out of Mugabe’s hands at a time he had cut the image of a man in control, Monday’s election is a political testof his life.

Should he lose, he will likely be treated in ignominy alongside Mugabe and other war veterans believed to have run down the country. However, if he wins, he will represent a different lesson. The world will see him as a former Mugabe ally fed up with ways of the old and keen to the awakening of a new Zimbabwe.

For Chamisa, winning this election will make him the ‘messiah’ Zimbabwe had been waiting for. And losing will mean Zimbabweans aren’t ready for change. It will be a testimony that Zanu-PF is still a force to reckon with.

But of note though is that Mnangagwa is simply an old order disguised as new. He was in the inner circles of Mugabe and shouldn’t pretend to abhor his controversial policies, including the vicious seizure of land from white settlers. There is no bad deed that turns into good among the ruling elite. 

Elections in Africa can be bloody. Our own experience in Kenya tells us that politics of brinkmanship and ethnic disaffection can totally tear apart a society. This is why we want to remind Zimbabweans that an election shouldn’t be a matter of life and death. As they troop to the ballot box tomorrow morning, they should know their unity is more important than the interest of any single individual. 

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Chamisa’s party has registered concerns over legitimacy of the voter register. Violence has also been sporadic. We urge electoral commission chair Priscilla Chigumba to ensure tomorrow’s vote is beyond reproach so that candidates and voters will readily embrace the outcome. 

Like in many African countries, the temptation to rig is hard for incumbents to resist. Mnangagwa has options. He can choose to win in a free and fair contest or use the benefit of incumbency to rig his way in. We urge him to do the right thing and prove to skeptics that Africa can manage its destiny. 

Thirst for power

Across the continent, elections are continuously losing meaning. The lesson here for every leader is that what you do to access or retain power will be done unto you. A coup succeeds a coup. A botched election succeeds another.

Mobutu Sese Seko, a military dictator who formed a totalitarian regime in DRC, amassed vast wealth. He killed and maimed, only for him to hit a dead end in 1997 after 26 years at the helm. 

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Every African should be concerned about tomorrow election in Zimbabwe. Should the outcome reflect the will of Zimbabweans, it will be a win for democracy and therefore a win for every proud African. If it fails to impress, then it will only serve to perpetuate electoral impunity in a continent beleaguered by hunger, disease, poverty and civil wars. 

We abhor any acts by opposition or government supporters that could compromise the conduct of tomorrow’s election. The Africa Union (AU) and allies should offer every support to Zimbabwe. The laxity with which AU has handled previous delicate situations in Burundi and elsewhere is unacceptable. It can never be too late to get it right.

ZimbabweRobert MugabeGeneral ElectionEmmerson Mnangagwa