Harare—Barring unforeseen developments, Priscilla Chigumba will superintend over her third harmonised elections in 2028 as the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).
She was first sworn in by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, then a caretaker head of State after a military –assisted takeover from the late Robert Mugabe—at the beginning of February 2018, six months before that year’s general elections.
She had to leave the bench as a High Court justice to take up the new post, replacing another female judge, Rita Makarau, who had resigned two months earlier in December 2017, apparently because the incoming administration considered her to have been too close to the deposed Mugabe.
Chigumba was the ZEC chair when Zimbabwe once again went to the polls in August last year.
Last week, the president extended Chigumba’s tenure by six years from 1 February 2024.
The next elections are set for two years before the end of her renewed term in 2030.
The two national polls that she has presided over so far were seriously contested, with the main opposition, local watchdogs and international observers among others, accusing ZEC of conducting itself in a partisan manner in favour of the long-ruling Zanu PF.
Mnangagwa’s critics reacted to Chigumba’s reappointment with resigned indignation, pointing to her trail of election maladministration, ZEC’s lack of independence that saw securocrats and other outside agencies playing a dominant role over the commission and, overall, the failure of the electoral body to ensure free, fair and credible elections.
For the critics, the reappointment was an endorsement by Mnangagwa of mediocrity, treachery and connivance with the Zanu PF system relating to the management of elections.
They insist that Chigumba is a useful player—rather than referee—in Mnangagwa and Zanu PF power politics.
The 2018 elections gave Chigumba a baptism of fire and did little to raise her profile on the backdrop of previous flattering judgments whereby she seemed to have broken ranks with the partisan Zimbabwean courts by freeing anti-government protesters.
The “new” electoral commission waded into the elections that would be conducted without meaningful reforms and ZEC was too timid or plainly reluctant to change the tack.
The Angola-led Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) election observer mission for 2018 hailed ZEC for notable improvements since the last polls in 2013.
Such improvements included the introduction of a biometric voters’ roll and poll-specific voter registration, fuller control of voter registration as opposed to the past when the Registrar-General’s office was also involved, the establishment of a multiparty liaison committee for inclusive poll-related dialogue and engagement with civil society organisations.
These achievements, though, had been made possible by the Makarau regime and Chigumba came in mostly to implement them.
In its preliminary report, the SADC mission noted some shortfalls regarding ZEC, for which the Chigumba commission must take blame despite the six-month headway between her appointment and the elections.
The shortcomings included delays in the release of the voters’ roll to political stakeholders, lack of transparency in the procurement and printing of ballot papers, manipulation of ballot layout to favour President Emmerson Mnangagwa, lack of impartiality and bias towards Zanu PF and the glaring absence of a pro-active communication strategy that would adequately address the concerns of political parties and candidates.
Regarding the voters’ roll, the mission noted: “It was the view of the opposition and some civil society groups that the voters’ roll was shared late and in a format that was not analysable and therefore, not consistent with the provisions of the constitution”.
It added: “The aggrieved stakeholders also expressed concern that the time allocated for inspection and verification of the voters’ roll was inadequate for both registered voters and political parties. Furthermore, the electronic copies of the voters’ roll were only made available after the nomination process”.
But if the Chigumba commission enjoyed the benefit of doubt in the pre-polling phase of the elections in 2018, it became fatally exposed during and after voting.
The first serious concern raised by the opposition, election watchdogs and other critics regarded postal voting, whereby ZEC proved powerless when members of the security forces were forced to cast their ballots in the presence of their bosses, thereby denying them secrecy of the vote.
Similarly, as also noted by the SADC team, ZEC failed to stop traditional leaders—who typically mobilise for Zanu PF against the constitution that obligates them to be politically neutral—from influencing voting processes despite the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) also weighing in by condemning their involvement.
Nelson Chamisa, then presidential candidate for the MDC Alliance, launched a sensational Constitutional Court challenge in which he alleged massive rigging that benefited Mnangagwa involving ZEC.
Chamisa lost, mainly because his legal team failed to adduce compelling evidence to back his claims.
The court case, though, exposed ZEC, which was found to have produced several different results of the presidential poll, indicating that it had ill-handled ballot collation, tabulation and documentation.
Despite his loss, Chamisa’s allegation of vote rigging received a boost from a book that was authored by the self-exiled former Zanu PF heavyweight, Jonathan Moyo, who fled Zimbabwe during the November 2017 military coup.
The 2019 book, Excelgate: How Zimbabwe’s 2018 Presidential Election Was Stolen, provides an account of how ZEC worked with some agencies to reverse Chamisa’s win.
According to Moyo, records fed into the ZEC server—which was under the control of Africom, a military-run telecommunications outfit—showed that Chamisa had beaten Mnangagwa.
Since, according to the author, ZEC and its handlers in “the system” failed to doctor the results in the server, they then caused a bypass of the results transmission route by collecting ballot counts straight from the polling stations, leapfrogging the constituency and provincial counting centres and inputting manipulated numbers into an Excel spreadsheet to reverse Chamisa’s win.
Moyo’s research relied on court and ZEC reports, insider information and his experience as a former senior Zanu PF member in charge of information.
Five years down the line, Chigumba and ZEC showed that they had learnt nothing and forgotten just about everything from the 2018 elections.
The Sadc mission for the 2023 elections, led by former Zambian vice president, Nevers Mumba, was not taking any prisoners.
In its final report, the Sadc mission still retained its condemnation of ZEC, showing that the commission had continued with its intransigence since the last elections in 2018.
The mission’s report shows that Chigumba and ZEC had mismanaged the elections throughout the polling cycle.
The Sadc pointed out numerous dark areas, which included the following:
- The delimitation exercise “was marred with controversy”. There was substantial gerrymandering in the re-framing of constituencies and this tended to favour Zanu PF
- The ZEC used a disputed methodology in the delimitation of the constituencies, resulting in the odds tilting in favour of Zanu PF
- There were serious delays in the release of the voters’ roll, just as in the 2018 elections and those that came before
- Even then, the rolls were neither searchable nor analysable, in violation of the Electoral Act and the Zimbabwean constitution, which, under Section 62, obligates public and private entities to make accessible, information of public interest when requested to do so
- ZEC pegged nomination fees that were too high for most candidates and political parties. This, critics concluded, was meant to prohibit the opposition from meaningfully participating in the elections
- ZEC, once again, looked aside as police bosses monitored the manner in which their juniors filled their postal ballots
- There was widespread voter intimidation through the Forever Associates of Zimbabwe Trust (FA), a shadowy outfit linked to the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO)
- There was widespread voter suppression through delays in voting
- As at the 2018 elections, ZEC did not ensure transparency in the procurement and printing of ballots
- ZEC did not heed the SADC recommendation of 2018 to adopt an effective and inclusive communication strategy to address political players’ concerns
In the disputed elections, ZEC struggled to demonstrate functional independence and impartiality, thereby failing to deliver free, fair, transparent and credible polls.
Chigumba failed to stamp her authority on constitutional and procedural processes, after Mnangagwa twice violated the constitution, first by not observing the seven-day deadline to submit the preliminary draft delimitation report.
The President got the report on 26 December 2022, and was supposed to table it before Parliament by 2 January 2023, but he only did so on 6 January 2023 in a clear violation of the constitution.
Again, Chigumba gave Mnangagwa the final report on 3 February in terms of section 161 (10) of the constitution for him to gazette within 14 days.
However, under her watch, Mnangagwa breached the constitution as he only did so on 20 February, three days after the deadline.
Seven out of nine commissioners on 6 December 2022 revolted against Chigumba and her deputy, Rodney Kiwa, over the authorship of the delimitation report.
Seven commissioners on 6 December 2022 refused to adopt the report, saying it was written by Chigumba and Kiwa and was thus not a collective product.
Chigumba also failed to rid the commission secretariat of staff linked to the military and national intelligence.