By Jonathan Moakes, George Chichester and Emily Osborne
AS the crowds of press-ganged supporters spilt into Zimbabwe’s National Sports Stadium for President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s inauguration ceremony on Monday 4 September 2023, one group of guests was conspicuous by its absence.
Of the 16 presidents of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), only three — South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Mozambique’s Filipe Nyusi, and DRC’s Félix Tshisekedi — bothered to attend.
From the 51 remaining African countries, not one head of state was present, represented instead by an eclectic retinue of ambassadors and junior ministers.
This snub is a damning indictment of the illegitimacy of Zimbabwe’s much-derided elections and will be harshly felt by Mnangagwa.
It is one thing for his regime to have been condemned and sanctioned by the West, but entirely another to be ostracised by fellow African leaders.
The president has been forced to scramble around for support: former Zambian president Edgar Lungu made a rare public appearance at the inauguration at Mnangagwa’s (last minute) invitation.
But this matters little when Zambia’s current president, Hakainde Hichilema, has refused either to congratulate Mnangagwa or attend his inauguration, sending Foreign Affairs Minister Stanley Kakubo in his stead.
SADC’s unexpected censure
Hichilema’s cold shoulder is an important diplomatic signal. As Chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, his judgement carries great weight in the region.
The refusal of most SADC heads of state to support Mnangagwa’s inauguration — and the absence of all three presidents in the SADC Troika — follows the unprecedented condemnation of the elections by the body’s observer mission.
Dr Nevers Mumba, appointed head of mission by Hichilema, delivered the hammer blow to Zanu-PF’s hopes of publicly spinning these elections as anything other than deeply fraudulent.
SADC’s preliminary report accused them of falling short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.
Since then, Mumba has described the elections as “the most fraudulent in the history of SADC”.
Condemning these elections outright was a momentous — and courageous — break with tradition by Mumba. The bloc has a history of rubber-stamping Zimbabwe’s deeply contested elections.
But Mumba and his team laid bare Zanu-PF and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s (ZEC) long-running tactics to suppress turnout and manipulate the final vote count.
These tactics included a refusal by ZEC to release a finalised voters roll; changes to constituency boundaries that smacked of gerrymandering; and the intimidation of voters by a Zanu-affiliated organisation called FAZ, who placed menacing agents outside polling stations on election day.
These grave concerns were echoed by all other major observer missions, including the African Union (AU), European Union (EU), the Commonwealth, and the Carter Center.
They also condemned the arrest of around 40 observers from local NGOs on election night in a blatant attempt by the government to cover its tracks; the equipment used by these observers to conduct an independent Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT) was seized in order to prevent its publication.
On election day itself, what should have been 12 hours of voting turned into a marathon process spanning two days and nights.
Dozens of polling stations, largely concentrated in opposition strongholds of Harare and Bulawayo, remained shut late into the night as they waited for ballot papers to arrive.
ZEC’s handling of the situation, according to SADC, cast “doubts about the credibility of this electoral process”. As a blatant ploy of voter suppression, it was incredibly successful: national voter turnout fell to a meagre 69%, down from 85% in the 2018 elections.
The opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) urban heartlands were the hardest hit, with turnout in Harare and Bulawayo falling by 19% and 25% respectively.
Despite these exhaustive efforts, the electoral commission still struggled to secure a conclusive victory for Mnangagwa. Announcing the results late on Saturday night, ZEC claimed the president had won 52.6% of the vote, while CCC candidate Nelson Chamisa had just 44%.
These results have been highly contested, and ZEC maintains its refusal to publish the results at a polling station level.
But even if these figures are accurate, they provide a pitiful return for such lengths of coercion, intimidation, and voter suppression.
They also depict Mnangagwa, known as “the Crocodile” for his ruthless reputation, as demonstrably less popular than his parliamentary party — a bad look for any autocrat looking to keep his job.
No choice but reform
Commentators in both Africa and the West predicted with glum certainty that these elections would be conducted, and concluded, in much the same way as five years ago.
But 2023 has not been a complete rerun of 2018. For the first time ever, SADC has declared an election within its bloc invalid. This is a major development for Zimbabwe and southern Africa as a whole.
That is not to say the next five years will not be a brutal struggle for millions of Zimbabweans, toiling under a regime that consistently and violently disregards their basic human rights.
Even since the election, opposition activists have reportedly been detained and tortured. On Monday, human rights lawyers Doug Coltart and Tapiwa Muchineripi were arrested while trying to assist two such victims and charged with obstructing the course of justice.
However, the reaction of Zimbabwe’s friends and neighbours offers hope. Mnangagwa can no longer pretend it’s business as usual while his fellow presidents give him the brush off.
Meanwhile, international bodies like the Commonwealth and the African Development Bank (AfDB) will feel galvanised in their condemnation. AfDB has previously indicated that any hope of renegotiating Zimbabwe’s debts is contingent on democratic reform.
Likewise, Commonwealth heavyweights like the United Kingdom and Australia will feel less pressure to admit Zimbabwe while their concerns are echoed by African nations.
It also reflects a broader shift towards democracy in southern Africa that has already been underway for several years. In 2019, Malawi’s Constitutional Court nullified the country’s fraudulent elections after widespread and credible reports of vote tampering.
In Zambia, former president Edgar Lungu’s abortive attempt to hold onto power following the 2021 elections was de-escalated with the help of former president Rupiah Banda and the leader of the AU’s observation mission, Ernest Karoma, former president of Sierra Leone.
Outright sham elections are now increasingly rare in southern Africa and even less rarely tolerated. If Mnangagwa has any hope of re-engaging with his neighbour states — let alone rejoining the Commonwealth or negotiating Zimbabwe’s debt burden — fair elections will have to come first.
By ensuring the region’s outright condemnation, Hichilema and Mumba have fanned the flames of democratic reform in Zimbabwe so high that even the Crocodile himself will struggle to take the heat.
Jonathan Moakes, George Chichester and Emily Osborne work for the SABI Strategy Group, a communications and campaigning firm based in London and Johannesburg.
Disclosure: The SABI Strategy Group (who the authors all work for) conducted work for the Citizens Coalition for Change during the Zimbabwe elections.