A sham election will be dicey for Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa greets supporters before an explosion at an election rally in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe June 23, 2018. [Reuters]

President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe has struck up a keen friendship with controversy.

Last week, he tucked his tail after much furore and set August 23 as the D-date for the southern African country's elections. Popular as 'ED' or the 'crocodile', the 80-year-old president will be seeking a fresh term. He will face off with Nelson Chamisa, 45, leader of the restive Citizens' Coalition for Change.

Stakes are palpably high. Chamisa is oozing confidence while Mnangagwa is using might and energy to defend his record since 2017 when he took over following Robert Mugabe's ouster.

With a wry smile, the president has pretty much proven he isn't a pushover. Like in earlier polls, there are no cheers ahead of the August vote. A pro-Zanu PF law was passed hours after ED announced the big date. It targets critics of the State. In forbidding acts that damage 'sovereignty and national interest,' the new decree's aim is a no-brainer. Regrettably, there's nil, so far, that suggests the high-stakes election will be credible. With all factors constant - resentment toward divergent views, threats on opposition and civil groups, graft and all talk but zero efforts to foster democracy and equity - the alarm bells are sounding loud.

A survey for the Brenthurst Foundation suggests that 47 per cent of Zimbabwean voters believe the August vote won't be free and fair. They cite cheating in counting, government abusing its power and security force violence as expected threats. Even hustlers on Harare's Chinhoyi or Mazowe streets have never been more worried.

A disastrous election in Zimbabwe, after recent disputed ones held by the big boys - Nigeria and Kenya - will be yet another 'red-herring' and 'wild goose chase' moment for Africa's quest for democracy and political inclusion. It will a moment of shame. Mnangagwa has previously been accused of curtailing free speech and using police and the justice system to cripple the opposition. But his allies are bullish. They credit their man with resuscitating the economy and reforming governance.

Observers with an expert eye on Harare say the president hasn't demonstrated departure from Mugabe's ways. That could explain why some nations are yet to lift sanctions that hurt Zimbabwe.

Restrictions enforced between 2000 and 2022 focused on Mugabe and his wife Grace - she of the Paris shopping spree fame. System allies too were targeted for asset freeze. The EU and US cited rights abuses, economic ruin and electoral fraud. The August elections should ideally be another chance to demand justice for citizens afflicted by misrule. It is an open secret that Mnangagwa is an old order masked as progressive and reform-oriented leader. He and Mugabe gelled in a rare scale.

I have previously argued that since Mugabe didn't err alone, those who aided wrongs during his time must take responsibility. Remember the controversial land laws that led to the brutal ejection of white farmers?

Mnangagwa knows the culprits but chooses to do nothing. Instead, he feigns innocence. When MDC and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai gave Zanu-PF a run for its money at the 2009 elections, opposition supporters were brutalised and some killed.

Former police chief Solomon Mujuru was murdered on August 15, 2011 and his body burnt. But despite hue and cry, Mnangagwa's regime which appears keen to perpetuate status quo, is yet to nail those who cheered on during the dark days.

To earn a dignified second term, Mnangagwa must swiftly reinvent Zanu-PF and warm his way into hearts of citizens through real socio-economic reforms. Citizens need food, security and jobs, not threats or obliteration.

Mr 'crocodile' should allow multi-party democracy to thrive and for more liberation parties to be formed. He should not undermine civil liberties, to have his way. The world will be keenly watching.

The writer is a communications practitioner. Twitter: @markoloo