The killing of six unarmed civilians by Zimbabwe’s military on 1 August, two days after polling in the country’s general elections, was a huge setback for an otherwise well-laid plan by President Emmerson Mnangagwa to push a narrative that his election victory would herald the dawn of a new dispensation.
The Mnangagwa administration, it was promised, would increase democratic space and be characterised by the mantra ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’. Before the tragedy, the ZANU-PF charm offensive seemed to be working. The electoral period up to voting day had been largely free of violence and intimidation, with increased room for the opposition to campaign countrywide – all in stark contrast to elections conducted during the 37 years of Robert Mugabe’s rule.
Until the shootings, the international community and would-be investors seemed convinced. By 30 July, key international actors had begun to tout Mnangagwa as the face of a reformed Zimbabwe and as a man with whom they could do business.
However, a riotous and violent demonstration by opposition supporters when initial polling results indicated that Mnangagwa would be declared the winner caused panic within the ZANU-PF-aligned security sector, which had already been primed to crush any election-based protests. It reacted with a heavy handedness reminiscent of the Mugabe era.
The meticulously choreographed narrative of a new dispensation stumbled. As a desperate damage-limitation exercise and as a face saver for international players who had been hobnobbing with what the vindicated regarded as an unreformed, irredeemable and murderous ZANU-PF, the president set up a commission of inquiry into the killings.
This immediately caused concern among human rights groups. Zimbabwe’s laws, unusually, don’t allow the deliberate use of lethal force in any circumstances, no matter how extreme the behaviour of the person shot. Any deliberate use of lethal force is unlawful, and the unlawful, intentional killing of a human being is how the crime of murder is defined under Zimbabwe’s law.
Many believe that the investigation should rather be a murder enquiry and any peripheral issues be dealt with by already established and independent bodies, such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, rather than a commission hand-picked by the president.
Mnangagwa chose respected former South African president Kgalema Motlanthe to head the commission, intending to bring it gravitas, and to convey the message that the matter would be dealt with fairly and impartially.
However, given that the commission is all about the optics, as bizarre as the selection of Motlanthe was wise, even more so was the inclusion of Professor Charity Manyeruke.
Manyeruke is well-known to the Zimbabwean public as a ZANU-PF functionary and astoundingly disingenuous spin-doctor. Her presence on the commission was probably to make sure that it didn’t stray from its severely restrictive terms of reference, which betray the commission’s true function as a public relations stunt.
Under Zimbabwe’s constitution only the president may deploy troops to help in policing duties, and even then, parliament must be informed as soon as possible. Government has denied Mnangagwa’s involvement in the deployment, leaving the public wondering who gave the instruction. The issue of who ordered the deployment is a glaring omission from the commission’s mandate – as is the question of whether the police required military assistance at all.
The terms of reference confine the commission’s mandate to investigating what ‘necessitated’ the deployment – a clear hint to the commission to find that the deployment was required on account of the extreme violence of the demonstrators and that this ‘justified’ the use of lethal force.
During the hearings, open to the public, the commission received written, oral, audio and video submissions from select eyewitnesses, victims, the military, the police, the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance leadership and former home affairs minister Obert Mpofu.
However, the commission omitted to invite the then defence minister General Constantino Chiwenga, whose name came up many times in proceedings and who is widely believed to have unilaterally issued the order for deployment.
The commission should also have asked the president to testify on this issue, especially after the then home affairs minister contradicted other official versions and said the deployment had been sanctioned by the president, even though parliament had not been informed. The failure to subpoena both as witnesses considerably increased public scepticism about the proceedings.
Just two days after ending the hearings, on Friday, 30 November, the commission presented an executive summary of its report to Mnangagwa. The full report is due no later than 19 December, and will probably be made public. Few are holding their breath as to the outcome.
All indications are that the commission will find that the military had to intervene to contain extreme violence which was threatening property, life and limb; that due procedure was not followed in the deployment; and that this resulted in poorly trained troops, acting without a proper chain of command, using excessive force. The unfortunate series of circumstances resulted in a tragic loss of life. The government must put in place measures to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
No doubt the Mnangagwa administration will put its hand on its heart, thank the commission for its excellent work, and undertake to implement the recommendations. The country will then be urged to put the matter behind them and work together in unity and harmony to build the economy to ensure a better future for all.
The economy, however, has other ideas. The commission’s report won’t bring back the foreign direct investment that shied away after the shootings and upon which Mnangagwa has based his plan for recovery.
Ringisai Chikohomero, Researcher, Peace and Security Research Programme, ISS Pretoria
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