Tendai Biti, a member of the opposition MDC Alliance, is a constitutional lawyer who served as Zimbabwe’s Minister of Finance from 2009 to 2013.
Our goals for restoring democracy nevertheless remain under threat by the remnants of dictatorship, their propagandists and enablers, both at home and abroad. Our upcoming election on July 30 cannot be a whitewash of democracy. The people of Zimbabwe know this, and we are counting on our friends in the international community to stand with us.
Our longtime ruler, Robert Mugabe, was forced out by a military coup in November 2017. But do not be fooled. The dictator may be gone, but his machinery of repression is alive and well. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former understudy, is now president, having been ushered into power by the leaders of last year’s coup. The world has been introduced to him in a carefully managed publicity campaign, designed to project an image of reform. Some world leaders seem to believe the charade that a new dawn has somehow arrived in Zimbabwe. It has not.
Rather than offering reform, Mnangagwa heralds a return to Zimbabwe’s dark past. I speak from firsthand experience. Along with my colleagues in the opposition MDC Alliance — as well as brave activists in civil society, the media, trade unions and our vibrant religious community — we have been fighting for freedom and justice for three decades. For our efforts, we have been routinely targeted for state-sponsored intimidation, imprisonment and torture. I have personally received multiple death threats. I have witnessed friends and colleagues being beaten — including a brutal attack with iron bars against Nelson Chamisa, the MDC’s president and our dynamic presidential candidate. Yet, while the bodies of so many of our heroes have suffered and disappeared, their voices carry on and inspire us.
The current military junta has yet to reckon with its own violent past. Mnangagwa may speak abstractly of national healing when he’s abroad, but it can only begin when those responsible admit to their crimes and commit to a process of real accountability.
Between 1983 and 1987, Zimbabwe’s 5th Brigade — trained by North Korea — massacred tens of thousands of mainly Ndebele citizens. During the operation known as Gukurahundi, or “the rain that washes away the garbage,” Mnangagwa ran the intelligence services that coordinated the rampage. More than three decades later, not a single individual has been held to account.
The atrocities are part of a broader pattern of state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe. In his later post as the minister of housing, Mnangagwa spearheaded Operation Murambastvina (“clear out the filth”). Informal houses were bulldozed by the military, displacing nearly 600,000 people. By no coincidence, those most affected were largely the support base of the MDC.
Mugabe and his circle, including Mnangagwa, have also stolen our land and natural resources with brazen impunity. Mnangagwa was in charge of a reckless intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We still do not know how much this war cost in both blood and treasure. We do know that the ruling elite, including Mnangagwa, became immensely wealthy.
When diamonds were discovered at Marange in the southeast of our country, the military and ruling party officials quickly moved to cash in. Mansions sprang up in the suburbs, and luxury cars began to congest our notoriously pot-holed streets. Despite clear evidence of theft, no one can account for an estimated $15 billion dollars in lost revenue. Meanwhile, seven out of 10 of my fellow citizens remain in poverty, and an estimated 90 percent are still unemployed.
For those who believe the military junta will allow free and fair elections, look no further than the 2008 electoral defeat of Mugabe. The late MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai won at the polls, fairly and resoundingly, but Mugabe refused to leave power. At the urging of Mnangagwa and the military, Mugabe unleashed a vicious campaign of political violence. In the months that followed, our supporters and activists suffered beatings, rapes, kidnappings, disappearances and arson attacks. Nearly 300 of our supporters were killed in cold blood. Many of these crimes have been laid at the feet of Mnangagwa, yet no one has ever been held accountable.
The elections scheduled for this July are again a chance for a better future.
In Zimbabwe, what’s past is prologue. Mnangagwa did not seize power in an unconstitutional coup and then, miraculously, become a reformer or a democrat overnight. His long record of abuse did not disappear, nor have his brutal tactics of repression. To our friends around the world: Do not be fooled by the propaganda and false promises being promoted by well-funded lobbyists in Western capitals. Mnangagwa remains who he always has been.
Despite the mounting danger, my colleagues and I in the MDC Alliance will continue raising the alarm while forging ahead with our positive reform agenda. We will continue to believe that Zimbabwe can have a brighter future, based on respect for human rights, the dignity of all people and the principles of freedom and justice. We will continue to stand with brave civil society activists who want both peace and accountability. Our beleaguered nation deserves no less.