On August 23, 2023, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) and the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) faced off in a highly tense electoral contest. Most regional and international electoral observers, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) electoral observation mission[i] and the European Union electoral observation mission, described the election as having been flawed and not credible.[ii] Since the early years of independence in the 1980s, traditional leaders have been crucial in influencing the rural electorate to vote for Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU PF party. Over the last three decades, their role in politics has been questioned as leaders of the ruling ZANU PF party have reduced them to party cadres, co-opting them to manipulate the electorate to vote for ZANU PF. The government continues to employ strategies such as building houses for Chiefs and putting them on a payroll to win the allegiance of traditional leaders. This practice is common across many southern African countries, particularly Zambia and Malawi.

Mobilizing political support from the electorate is a central concern in any election. In Zimbabwe, traditional leaders played a crucial role in the 2023 elections, mobilizing support for the political contestants as well as manipulating the rural electorate. This article discusses how the government has co-opted Chiefs over the years and particularly in 2023, compromising their role as neutral actors in elections in violation of Chapter 15 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

Traditional Leaders as a Hindrance to Electoral Democracy

Historically, traditional leaders in Zimbabwe were installed by senior headmen in consultation with spirit mediums of the chiefdom. However, colonial governments changed the succession norms by using district administrators to install Chiefs, subverting Chiefs’ power and authority and using them as stooges to oppress their own people. The postcolonial state inherited—and retained—this practice by bestowing on itself the role of confirming the appointment of selected candidates. This approach gives the government the discretionary powers of accepting or rejecting the position of the family and spirit mediums. In this way, the government created space and opportunity to intervene in the ascendancy of Chiefs to ensure that “right candidates” assume chieftaincy positions. Thus, Chiefs feel indebted and loyal to the ruling party and have an obligation to sustain ZANU PF’s dominance in rural elections by any means possible. In addition, the Chiefs’ authority over rural areas sustains the ZANU PF’s power, as the Chiefs coerce rural populations to vote for the ZANU PF.

This historical patron-client relationship has seen traditional leaders being “gifted” with cars, hefty allowances, electrification of their homesteads, and farming inputs from the ZANU PF party and government. These “perks” are not legislated; hence, they can be viewed as inducements from the ZANU PF to the Chiefs whose main purpose is to ensure that Chiefs remain beholden to the ruling party. In March 2023, barely 5 months before the harmonised elections, President Emmerson Mnangagwa summoned traditional chiefs to a private ceremony at which he gifted them with vehicles and medical insurance cover. In his handing-over remarks, he told them to “defend the land” during the forth-coming elections before adding that the gift was meant to improve their lives. The timing of the “gifts” and the messaging in his remarks smacks of political expediency and can be qualified as vote-buying. The cars could be used as a resource by chiefs to cover the length and breadth of their chiefdoms during campaigns and well as an inducement to command loyalty.

Chapter 15 of the Zimbabwean Constitution prohibits Chiefs from being partisan and furthering the interests of a political party. Yet in 2023 during the Annual National Chiefs’ Council Conference the then president of the Chiefs’ Council, Chief Fortune Charumbira, publicly declared his support for the ZANU PF, defying the law that said chiefs should be apolitical. Chiefs’ participation at the ZANU PF congress and rallies and sharing their solidarity messages are likewise partisan activities. By contrast, ahead of the 2018 elections, when dethroned Chief of Ntabazinduna Chief Ndiweni, who was well known for speaking out against the government, attended a Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) rally in Gweru, Obert Mpofu, the then ZANU PF Secretary for Administration, called him a “political and traditional tyrant.”[iii] It would seem, then, that Chiefs can attend rallies and declare their support for the ZANU PF, but they cannot act do the same for the opposition parties and remain safely on their traditional thrones. This goes to show the selective application of the law. Traditional institutions are maintained and funded by the same institutions that make the law, thereby compromising democracy in rural areas.

In rural areas, where access is controlled by the Chiefs, the ruling party has thus had more platforms to campaign than the opposition parties. While access to rural areas was limited for the  opposition parties, the ZANU PF converted Chiefs’ installation ceremonies and funerals of traditional leaders into grounds for political campaigning. In April 2023, Kembo Mohadi, the ZANU PF’s Second Secretary, issued a stern order to traditional Chiefs during the installation of Chief Maduna[iv] that they were to instruct their subjects to vote for the ZANU PF. The statement by Vice President Kembo Mohadi was a clear indication of the role Chiefs were expected to play in facilitating a victorious electoral outcome for the ZANU PF.

Following Mohadi’s declaration, village heads ordered people to vote for the ZANU PF candidates. Traditional leaders were also appointed as electoral agents; for instance, in Hurungwe District, five headmen were enlisted as polling agents.[v] Village heads frog-marched their subjects to polling stations. Rural voters were duped to believe that their votes were not a secret, that they would be tracked down using serial numbers that were on their ballot papers, which were synchronized with their identification cards. This was a direct act of intimidation. Furthermore, there were reports that villagers suspected of being CCC loyalists were forced to fake their illiteracy so that they could be assisted to vote. This compromised the secrecy of the ballot and freedom to vote for a preferred candidate.


Traditional leaders, as custodians of democracy and cultural values in rural constituencies, have failed to uphold the tenets of electoral democracy among the rural population; instead, they “sold” their people to the regime in the 2023 elections. Chiefs remained silent when their subjects were victimized by politicians in the ruling party and the government. For example, after the recent elections, there were reports of “witch hunting” in Umguza for those suspected to have voted for the CCC.[vi] Chiefs ought to reclaim their positions as custodians of democracy in rural areas, but that would require the ruling government—which is supposed to allow Chiefs to be apolitical—to sabotage itself. Therefore, there should be more voter education in rural areas so the rural electorate can be more empowered and knowledgeable about their voting rights. Lessons could also be drawn from South Africa, where traditional leaders are part of the electoral process but not with the intention to further the interests of a single political party.


[i] Southern African Development Community, “SADC Electoral Observation Mission Preliminary Statement to the Harmonised Election to the Republic of Zimbabwe,” August 25, 2023, https://www.sadc.int/document/sadc-electoral-observation-mission-preliminary-statement-harmonised-election-republic.

[ii] European Union External Action, “EU EOM Zimbabwe 2023: Curtailed Rights and Lack of Level Playing Field Compounded by Intimidation; Election Day Largely Calm, but Disorderly,” press release, August 25, 2023, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eom-zimbabwe-2023/eu-eom-zimbabwe-2023-curtailed-rights-and-lack-level-playing-field-compounded-intimidation-election_en.

[iii] Kudzai Mashininga, “Traditional Leaders in Zimbabwe Must Toe the Ruling Party Line—Or Else,” Mail & Guardian, July 25, 2018, https://mg.co.za/article/2018-07-25-00-traditional-leaders-in-zimbabwe-must-toe-the-ruling-party-line-or-else/.

[iv] Lulu Brenda Harris, “Tell Your Subjects to Vote for ZANU PF, Mohadi Orders Chiefs,” CITE, April 17, 2023, https://cite.org.zw/tell-your-subjects-to-vote-for-zanu-pf-mohadi-orders-Chiefs/.

[v] James Muonwa, “Zimbabwe: ZANU-PF Trashes Constitution, Appoints Village Headmen as Polling Agents in Hurungwe,” AllAfrica, August 20, 2023, https://allafrica.com/stories/202308200018.html.

[vi] Silas Nkala, “ZANU-PF Umguza Activists on Post-Election Witch-Hunt,” NewsDay, August 31, 2023, https://www.newsday.co.zw/local-news/article/200015971/zanu-pf-umguza-activists-on-post-election-witch-hunt.