Crisis-weary Zimbabweans to vote on new constitutionBy: Susan NJANJI-MATETAKUFA
HARARE – Beleaguered Zimbabweans will tomorrow vote on a new constitution that would, for the first time, put a definite end date on Robert Mugabe’s controversial rule.
Millions of voters are expected to back a new set of laws that would decentralise power and limit Mugabe - and any subsequent presidents - to two five-year terms in office.
Nearly 33 years after Mugabe led the country to independence, the 89-year-old has, with a prod from the international community, also backed the new constitution.
While Mugabe would see presidential power curtailed, he would also be eligible to stay in office until 2023. By then he will be 99 years old.
The text, which took three years to draft, also has the support of Mugabe’s rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, making a landslide victory almost certain.
Tsvangirai’s supporters have tolerated concessions to Mugabe in the hope the referendum will pave the way for free elections, perhaps in July.
That, they say, provides a way out of decades of crisis marked by political terror and economic decay.
Few Zimbabweans say they have read the document, but regular radio and television spots have encouraged people to go and vote yes.
“I think it will bring about change,” said Blessing Satumba, a 24-year-old civil engineering student. “These people have overstayed, and when people overstay, they tend to do what they want. Change will help.”
Around 12 million ballot papers have been printed, although many fewer people are expected to file into the 9 456 polling centres across the country.
But evidence is mounting that Mugabe and Tsvangirai’s current unity of purpose masks a future filled with yet more tumult for Zimbabweans, who have endured decades marked by bloodshed and hyper-inflation.
After ruling for longer than most of his countrymen have been alive, Mugabe and his allies appear fixed on retaining power.
In recent weeks the security services, which remain firmly in the grip of Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party, have rounded up leading pro-democracy activists and thrown a legion of charges at them.
“The leopard has not changed colours,” Tsvangirai noted after armed riot police broke up one of his rallies earlier this month. The police blamed the raid on “miscommunication.”
Observers say the crackdown has not yet reached levels seen during 2008 elections, when as many as 200 people were killed and many more disappeared, were arrested or tortured.
But it is being seen as both a warning and a possible precursor to more severe election-related violence.
“Mugabe will only accept the result if it is in his favour. There is no way he will accept defeat,” said Takavafira Zhou, a political analyst from Masvingo State University.
“His cronies in Zanu-PF will definitely not accept his defeat.”
Foreign governments who shepherded the “Global Political Agreement” that brought constitutional reform, have pressed for the elections to be free and fair.
As an enticement to Mugabe they have dangled the promise of lifting long-standing economic sanctions.
But ensuring a fair vote may be difficult. Mugabe’s allies have already said that groups under “criminal investigation” will be barred from monitoring the polls.
So too will observers from countries that have been critical of Mugabe’s regime.
With these rights being eroded even as they would be further enshrined in law, some are questioning whether the constitution will be worth the paper it’s written on.
“The clampdown on dissent that is being witnessed in Zimbabwe currently is entirely at odds with the expanded bill of rights proposed by the new constitution,” said Noel Kututwa of Amnesty International.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe rights activists say they are suffering under a police crackdown designed to be an ominous warning ahead of a constitutional referendum tomorrow and elections later in the year.
Since late last year Mugabe’s police force has detained staff from prominent civil groups and raided offices of election and human rights monitors.
Violence has not hit the levels seen during the bloody 2008 election, which saw as many as 200 people killed and many more disappeared, arrested or tortured.
Nor has it reached the levels of 2005’s ‘Operation Murambatsvina’ or “drive out the trash,” which left an estimated 700 000 people homeless.
But rights groups believe they could be seeing a precursor of worse to come.
“Their intention is to intimidate civic society,” Mcdonald Lewanika, executive director of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition told AFP.
“This is a clear calculated move to target certain civic society organisations to intimidate rights activists.”
Police have justified the crackdown saying their targets were civic organisations they tagged “a serious security threat.”
But analysts say that the arrest of rights activist Jestina Mukoko is intended to send a clear message.
Last week she was charged with a litany of offences, including operating an unregistered organisation, smuggling radios into the country and broadcasting without a licence.
“It is not by coincidence that Jestina has been targeted, everyone knows what happened to her when she was abducted and tortured,” said Lewanika.
“The police are acting as an extension of Zanu-PF.”
Mukoko was arrested in 2008 and detained in the notorious Chikurubi prison outside Harare.
Her lawyers claimed state agents severely tortured her and forced her to confess to banditry and treason.
She was charged in 2009 with plotting to overthrow Mugabe, but the charges were later dismissed.
What has shocked rights groups about the latest crackdown is that it has come under a government in which Mugabe shares power with pro-democracy leader Tsvangirai.
Political analyst Clever Bere blames Tsvangirai for not putting enough pressure on Mugabe to halt the harassment. – Nampa-AFP