Even in its infancy, it is already clear that Zimbabwe’s National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC), created by the National Peace and Reconciliation Act of 2018, does not have enough political and legal power to address conflicts rooted in the injustices faced by the people of Zimbabwe. This article argues that the government needs to create an enabling environment to ensure that all parties involved in perpetrating violence are held accountable and that victims and survivors obtain justice.
The Zimbabwean government has a history of glossing over political violence with political agreements, such as the Unity Accord of 1987—reached between the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) —to end the brutal massacres and torture of thousands of civilians during the Gukurahundi.1Gukurahundi is a Shona term used to refer to the killings and torture of over 20 000 people and the displacement of thousands of people in the Midlands and Matabeleland area in Zimbabwe between 1980 and 1987. The Gukurahundi or Matabeleland massacres were initiated by clashes in 1980 at Entumbane demobilization camp in Bulawayo between the former Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the military wing of ZANU, and ex-ZIPRA combatants, the military wing of ZAPU. See report of the Catholic Commission for Justice, Peace in Zimbabwe and Legal Resources Foundation (Zimbabwe), 1997, Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980 to 1988. This political settlement enabled ZANU-PF to subsume ZAPU, thereby creating a de facto one-party state. No redress was offered to those who were wounded or suffered losses during the Matabeleland disturbances.
In a similar way, the Global Political Agreement (GPA) of 2008, which was signed between ZANU-PF and two factions of the opposition party—Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai and Movement for Democratic Change-Mutambara, failed to offer Zimbabwe a viable means to address its ugly past. Article 7 of the GPA mandated the Government of National Unity (GNU)—formed in 2008 between ZANU-PF and the two MDC factions—to set up a mechanism that would advise the government on how to achieve national healing, peace, and reconciliation. The GNU was a transitional government established to resolve the political impasse resulting from the controversial general election in March 2008 and the hotly disputed June run-off that followed. The GNU initiated a peacebuilding process that involved setting up the Organ for National Healing, Reconciliation, and Integration (ONHRI) to address past injustices. However, the ONHRI failed to settle past injustices, mainly due to a lack of political will from the ruling ZANU-PF party which constantly disrupted its meetings. It was disbanded in 2013 when the GNU was dissolved and replaced by the NPRC, which this essay argues has been ineffective.
A review of the political situation in Zimbabwe over the past year suggests that state-led institutions such as the NPRC have so far been unable to address the challenges of conflict management and post-conflict reconciliation facing the country. In the first place, it took the government nearly five years (from 2013 to 2018) to establish the enabling legislative framework necessary for setting up the NPRC. President Emmerson Mnangagwa signed the NPRC Act into law on January 5, 2018, which enabled the peace commission to begin its work addressing past injustices.
According to section 252 of the NPRC Act, the peace commission has ten key functions, four of which are crucial to this discussion. The first of these functions, section 252 (c), stipulates that the NPRC must promote national reconciliation by encouraging truth-telling about the past, facilitating the making of amends, and providing justice. Second, section 252 (d) prescribes that the peace commission should develop procedures and institutions at various levels of society to prevent conflict and disputes arising in the future. Third, section 252 (g) mandates the commission to develop mechanisms for early warnings of potential conflicts and disputes and to take appropriate measures to prevent them. Fourth, section 252 (i) prescribes that the NPRC should take measures to conciliate and mediate disputes among communities, organizations, groups, and individuals.
However, the commission has so far been unable to fully exercise the powers needed to carry out its expected functions as stipulated in section 252 of the NPRC Act. This situation can be explained by several factors, including the carry-over of the repressive policies of the previous regime and the lack of political will on the part of the authorities. This suggests that an enabling environment is urgently required for the state-led peace and reconciliation initiative to function effectively.
There is compelling evidence showing that in the past year, the NPRC has failed to prevent the escalation of political tensions in the country. This is partly because it has been unable to create an environment for peaceful dialogue between opposing sides or offer any recourse to justice or compensation for victims whose rights had been violated. Many Zimbabweans continue to live in fear of government security forces and have become apolitical to avoid becoming victim to state-led repression or “disappearances.” Memories of the abduction and disappearance of human rights activists, such as Itai Dzamara in March 2015 by people suspected to be security agents, continue to haunt people. That the peace commission has not commenced investigating such disappearances and other repressive acts involving state security forces has contributed to skepticism and undermined its legitimacy as an institution set up to promote peace and reconciliation.
On August 1, 2018, reports indicated that six unarmed civilians lost their lives and several others were wounded by government soldiers who opened fire on people protesting alleged misconduct by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). The protesters accused ZEC of delays in announcing election results and vote rigging. Even before the July 31 general election, ZEC, a body responsible for ensuring that elections are transparent, free and fair, was consistently challenged in court by civic groups for failing to address the abnormalities in the voter registration roll. These protests and anomalies were overlooked by ZEC and no effort was made to resolve these contentious issues.
When the election-related protests erupted, the government responded by using violence, intimidation, and other repressive actions to suppress the protestors. Restrictive statutes, such as the Public Order and Security Act (2002), were evoked to prohibit citizens from holding public gatherings, rendering those found participating in public gathering law-breakers who deserved to be punished. Despite the high levels of election-related violence in the country, the peace commission was largely ineffective in addressing any of the pressing issues which ended up precipitating violence on August 1. The situation in the country—marked by high-handed responses to public protest, political unrest, and a worsening economic crisis—continues to pose serious challenges to peace and justice. Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe appears to be ruled by a militarized government, many of whose members have been implicated in the violence that the commission ought to address. These political figures have been accused of using the commission as a political ploy to garner support from voters and be seen as compliant to international norms of justice and respect for human rights.
President Mnangagwa tried to resolve the 2018 electoral crisis by instituting an “independent” commission of inquiry into the post-election violence. Such an investigation could have easily been conducted by the peace commission, an existing independent body designed to facilitate truth-telling, reconciliation, and justice. As one reflects on the first anniversary of the NPRC Act, it is saddening to read reports of more people losing their lives and suffering injuries inflicted by government security forces without any recourse.
On January 14, 2019, about eight people were reportedly shot and killed by soldiers during a national protest organized by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). Several others were injured. The ZCTU had arranged a three-day national “stay away” (January14-16) to protest the increase in fuel prices announced by the president on January 12. The police and military were deployed to disperse protestors in various suburbs of Harare, Bulawayo, Masvingo, and Midlands where a few incidents of vandalism and looting had been reported. However, the amount of force used by these state agents was disproportionate, reminiscent of the government’s actions on August 1 last year when soldiers used excessive force to suppress opposition riots.
Zimbabwe is facing a worsening economic crisis due to rising inflation, which has decreased the value of people’s income. Moreover, the continuous devaluing of the bond notes in circulation is eroding people’s purchasing power and making it harder for them to meet their daily needs. High unemployment rates among the economically-active population mean that many acquire their income from informal businesses, such as trading currency on the black market and buying and selling commodities imported mainly from South Africa and China.
Tensions between the government and civilians in Zimbabwe are likely to increase and the peace commission needs to be empowered to effectively act to prevent further injustices and an escalation of violence. However, state-led peacebuilding initiatives will continue to fail if the government does not create an enabling environment. Zimbabwe’s authorities will do well to learn from the experiences of South Africa and Rwanda where governments prioritized addressing past injustices by setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Gacaca courts, respectively. In both cases, they managed to hold both high- and low-level perpetrators of violence to account and offered resolutions that were—arguably—acceptable to most of the affected parties. These initiatives may not have resolved all the concerns of people affected by conflict, but they created a platform that brought together survivors to solve their differences and begin the process of collectively building their future.
- 1Gukurahundi is a Shona term used to refer to the killings and torture of over 20 000 people and the displacement of thousands of people in the Midlands and Matabeleland area in Zimbabwe between 1980 and 1987. The Gukurahundi or Matabeleland massacres were initiated by clashes in 1980 at Entumbane demobilization camp in Bulawayo between the former Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the military wing of ZANU, and ex-ZIPRA combatants, the military wing of ZAPU. See report of the Catholic Commission for Justice, Peace in Zimbabwe and Legal Resources Foundation (Zimbabwe), 1997, Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980 to 1988.