Recently, when confronted with a quite innocuous question from a journalist, the Head of State and Government, and Commander in Chief of the Defence Forces, His Excellency, cde Robert Gabriel Mugabe angrily cut him off, “now you are asking a regime change agenda,” he snapped.
The basic idea underpinning the concept of democracy is that ordinary Zimbabwean citizens have a fundamental right and should be entitled to freely decide who should govern them. In other words, the right to change a regime if they so wish. The process of translating that choice to reality is accomplished by way of voting, which is often done periodically, to enable ordinary people to make a clear statement about their leaders.
Another tenet of democracy, consistent with the first above, is that potential leaders must be able to, through various – peaceful means, present themselves, and their ideas through manifestos to the people – marketing themselves as the best leaders to govern and make policy decisions for the country. In this noble battle of ideas, whoever has the better idea should, ordinarily, following a vote to confirm them, be the new leaders of a new regime taking the country in a new, and hopefully better direction. The primary purpose of an election is to change or renew leadership. Even in situations where the incumbent is retained, the process of an election would have offered the public an opportunity to reaffirm his leadership.
This vital process, which I will, with Fungai Machirori’s recent, brilliant blog in mind, refer to as the nation’s shedding off of its old skin of failed policies and broken promises to reveal a new skin of hope and expectation, has been suppressed in Zimbabwe for the past 3 decades. Leaders are in denial – attempting to do the impossible – to defy nature. They vainly attempt to banish all evidence of the passage of time, tucking away strands of white hair and sagging skin, tragically locking the nation in a time warp. Imagine the snake clinging to its old skin, refusing to shed it off and make way for newness, for rebirth and revival?
For these leaders, elections are but a mere formality, their objective must never be to deliver regime change, but to endorse the status quo. Since elections are not really meant to deliver regime change, then it follows that it is not necessary to ensure free space for the contestation of ideas and free space for leaders of different political formations to market their vision for the country. The very concept of democracy would become, as a colleague is fond of saying, anathema to defenders of the indefensible status quo.
To ensure that the ideals of genuine democracy are defeated various instruments are deployed by incumbent regime. When the risk of losing power is deemed low, then the regime would simply fiddle with figures, rig here and there and ensure and outcome that restores prevailing balance of power. For good measure associates of the regime are deployed to oversee the counting of votes. For this reason, in African politics the counting of votes is much more important than the actual voting itself.
The bottom line for all these shenanigans being that power must be retained at any cost. While alternative democratic voices are denied space in national media to articulate their views, the incumbent regime is granted full coverage to propagate its ideas, which, often enough, it does not do but devotes its attention squarely to denigrate, demonise and abuse those advancing alternative views.
Where the risk of losing power is deemed greater, then there is no hesitation to deploy the threat of violence and violence in an attempt to alter the workings of democracy in the incumbent regime’s favour. On June 27, 2008, the day of the ill-fated one-man presidential runoff election, I offered a lift to a ‘war veteran’ who gave me an insight into this thinking. Quite unbidden, he commented on the election process,
“Holding elections is utter madness, how can people think that, by merely putting an ‘x’ on a piece of paper they can remove a president from power? How can a pen and paper have such an effect? We (presumably talking on behalf of so-called ‘war veterans’) will not allow people, just with the index finger (the one dipped in indelible ink as an indication that one has voted), to effect regime change. If that happens we will take our guns and go back to the bush.”
I believe the ‘war veteran’ gave and accurate diagnosis of the disease plaguing Zimbabwe – that the incumbent regime does not respect the concept of democracy and its corollary of regime change. After realising that indeed the wish of the people, as reflected in the March 29, 2008 elections, was for the country to renew its leadership and try fresh ideas, patrons and benefactors of the old regime quickly moved stop any peaceful transfer of power. Instruments of coercion were quickly activated to crush any dissent and ensure that the status quo is maintained at all costs.
The present arrangement, which primarily retained the status quo, albeit with a modicum of space at the high table for the true victors in the elections, derives its authority, not from tenets of democracy, but from undemocratic negotiations that the main political parties entered into in order to deal with a crisis triggered by a refusal to peaceful transfer power in accordance with democratic principles.
Although this arrangement dealt a severe blow to the development of our embryonic democracy, it by no means crushed the ideals of this enduring ideology. Even within ZANU-PF the institution, there is now a realisation that chickens of authoritarianism are now coming home to roost. Media reports indicate that elections in both ZANU-PF’s youth and women’s leagues were characterised by chaos and violence. Quite ironically, reports indicate that Mugabe pleaded with the youth league to respect election results and appealed to losers to magnanimously accept defeat in polls!
The creature called power-sharing government is only transitional; it can never replace the concept of true democracy and the right of every Zimbabwean to fully participate in the election of leaders of their choice. This fundamental right to regime change is recognised in article 13 of the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights and in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose article 21 provides that Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives, and more importantly, further that, the will of the people (as expressed in periodic, genuine elections) shall be the basis of the authority of government.
Relentless propaganda against regime change seeks to create the false impression that it is wrong to seek regime change, or to seek leadership renewal. It is not. It is a natural process that cannot be stalled indefinitely. It is a reality that, though it is temporarily denied, will surely come to pass.
Despite the hype about the liberation struggle and all, ZANU-PF came to power through the ballot box. In 1980 people were free to make a democratic choice. Likewise, Zimbabweans today should have the freedom to choose whosoever they wish as their leader. The right to regime change is a fundamental right that must be respected and be cherished by all.
Temporary setbacks and spanners being thrown in the works by elements resisting change cannot be reason enough to lose faith in the enduring power of the idea of democracy. Rather, it these challenges should spur activists on and strengthen their resolve to ensure that they exercise their right to vote, defend their vote, and ensure that the vote is counted and counts.