By-elections reveal continued persecution of observers  

Brenna Matendere

Harare—Election observers continue to face persecution in the course of their work, a fresh report by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) indicates.

The network observed numerous legislative and council by-elections last Saturday.

The by-elections were necessitated by recalls of opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) lawmakers and councillors by Sengezo Tshabangu, the self-imposed party interim secretary who took advantage of the lack of an institutional constitution and structures.

Nelson Chamisa, the party founder and leader, has since quit CCC, accusing the Zanu PF government of siding with Tshabangu to weaken the party by supporting the recalls.

The ZESN post-election report indicates that several of the network’s observers were harassed by unidentified people in the presence of law enforcement agents and Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) officers.

Parliamentary by-elections were conducted in Chegutu West, Goromonzi South, Mkoba North, Pelandaba-Tshabalala, Seke, and Zvimba East on 3 February.

The elections watchdog described the harassments of its officers as “alarming”, especially as the police did not take any action.

“During the Seke constituency by-elections, five…alarming incidents were reported involving ZESN observers. At Ruwa Country Club, (a) polling station in Ward 24, an observer was harassed and intimidated by unidentified individuals in an unmarked vehicle.

“The aggressors demanded information about her activities, escalated to threats of physical violence, and forced her to leave the polling station, removing her ZESN observer T-shirt (sic). Law enforcement officers and the presiding officer were present but were instructed not to intervene by the unidentified individuals,” noted ZESN.

The network formally reported the intimidation to ZEC and the observer had to be evacuated from the Ruwa Country Club polling station.

Another case of harassment was recorded at the Rusoveri Methodist polling station in Ward 15 of Seke in Mashonaland East province where a ZESN observer was chased away by unidentified persons that the network suspects to be “affiliated to the ruling (Zanu PF) party”.

“Despite the presiding officer’s attempts to intervene, the observer faced accusations of being a sell-out and misrepresenting to the West that elections are stolen in Zimbabwe and was forced to leave. Before intimidating the ZESN observer, the aggressors had a meeting with Zanu PF party agents and demanded that only ZEC officials, the police and political party agents remain at the polling station,” says the report.

Three more harassments were recorded on the by-election day at polling stations in Seke’s ward 4, namely Sundai Makonde, Charakupa clinic and Pamusasa Tent A.

“Observers at these polling stations were also harassed on election day within the 300m radius of their respective polling stations. Due to fear, one female observer ended up sleeping at the polling station with no blankets.

“These incidents highlight the challenges faced by election observers and the interference they may encounter while carrying out their duties. The act of intimidating and chasing away election observers not only weakens the values of transparency and accountability but also raises apprehensions around the general fairness of the electoral process,” added the report.

The elections watchdog urged the police to ensure the safety and security of observers.

“These security threats on observers are on the rise, hence ZEC must address this problem before it gets out of hand to ensure public confidence in the electoral process and electoral credibility,” ZESN noted.

Deployment of observers during elections is in line with the Electoral Act and is meant to ensure to ensure transparency, fairness, and the overall integrity of the elections.

There were dragnet arrests of 39 civic society actors from Election Resource Centre (ERC) and ZESN on the first day of polling during the 23-24 August general elections.

The observers had jointly set up two data centres in Harare for the observation of the harmonised elections.

Armed police raided both data centres as well as the ERC and ZESN offices, arresting staff and volunteers and confiscating equipment such as phones and laptops.

The ERC and ZESN had been accredited to observe the national elections as independent and non-partisan entities.

Observers from the EU, which Zanu PF and its respective governments treat as a hostile bloc since the imposition of targeted sanctions at the turn of the millennium over human rights abuses and bad governance, also came under attack during the 2023 elections.

The Herald, often passing as a government and Zanu PF mouthpiece, accused EU observers of bribing reporters with whisky and grocery vouchers “to influence journalists to make outlandish claims that seek to sully the whole election process”.

Head of the EU delegation, Fabio Massimo Castaldo, however described the allegation as defamatory and malicious, saying it was “based on unsubstantiated rumours and entirely fabricated”.

In a similar case, presidential spokesperson, George Charamba, and senior government as well as Zanu PF officials dragged Nevers Mumba, the chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) observer mission, over hot coals for the team’s preliminary report which sharply criticised the manner in which the harmonised polls were conducted.

The attacks brought Zimbabwe and Zambia to the brink of a diplomatic crisis, with President Emmerson Mnangagwa repeating his subordinates’ accusations against Mumba and the Zambian president, Hakainde Hichilema, directly and through insinuation.

Human rights defenders reported scores of incidents whereby election monitors and opposition party polling agents were beaten up, intimidated and abducted before, during and after the 2023 elections.

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