Human rights and wrongs

Zimbabwe: From Hemorrhage to Stability, a Personal Journey

By Tendai Biti | March 05th, 2015
Tendai Biti

On a chilly Monday morning on February 16th, 2009, I walked into the New Government Complex in Harare’s Central Avenue. As I strode for the very first time down a poorly lit corridor, eyes strained and necks stretched behind wide open doors to catch a glimpse of the newcomer with a reputation for short temper. I was ushered into a comfortable office that was to become my home for the next four and a half years. 

I had just become Zimbabwe’s eighth Minister of Finance. 

In 2008, the country had held a general election. Our opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), had narrowly won control of the lower house of Parliament. 

The Presidential election, on the other hand, had to go to a second round, which turned into a violent and chaotic farce. This prompted our party to pull out of the runoff. Robert Mugabe, the 84-year-old president of Zimbabwe, was controversially re-elected amid bloodshed and intimidation. 

Faced with a Zimbabwe on the brink of a political and economic precipice that threatened to plunge the region into turmoil, regional leaders pushed for a political settlement. 

The country’s economic meltdown had already been weighing on its neighbors, and in March 2007, regional leaders had mandated South Africa to facilitate dialogue amongst Zimbabwe’s three main political parties. 

Following the controversial 2008 election, South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, used that mandate to push for a settlement amongst the Zimbabwe National African Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU (PF), led by Robert Mugabe, the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai and a smaller formation of the MDC led by Arthur Mutambara, a former student leader, Rhodes Scholar and Oxford-trained scientist. 

On September 15th, 2008, the political parties agreed in principle to form a government of national unity (GNU). As a result of protracted and often vicious disagreements, it took five months for that awkward union to produce an actual government. 

It was on the basis of this power-sharing agreement that I found myself at the Ministry of Finance on February 16th, 2009—an environment far removed from the law practice that I had run for the previous 18 years. 

This hadn’t been an easy decision. As the MDC’s Secretary General, I was opposed to the idea of being in government with ZANU (PF), but on January 30th, my party had decided otherwise. Some friends argued that I should be part of the government and make the best of it. 

Following years of struggle and hardship, my family, on the other hand, was urging me to take a break from politics. In any case, the Justice portfolio felt like the only reasonable fit for a lawyer like myself, and it had been allocated to ZANU (PF). 

On February 8th, Morgan Tsvangirai and I met for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Harare. Over rice and dumplings, he convinced me to take on the Finance portfolio. With the Zimbabwean economy in freefall since 1997, it promised to be the toughest job in the world. 

Any illusions I may have had were shattered on my very first day at the Ministry of Finance (MOF). Following introductions to the senior management team, the Principal Director (Budgets), Pfungwa Kunaka, pointed out that the following day was payday for civil servants. 

“How much do we have to pay?” I asked. 

“$30 million, sir” he responded. 

“How much do we have?” 

He shook his head in surrender. “$4 million, sir.” 

“So where are we going to get the remaining $26 million?” I asked with a half-smile, beginning to understand what I had just gotten myself into. 

“We were waiting for you, sir.”




A chaotic start to elections in Malawi

By Ozias Tungwarara | May 21st, 2014
Voting in Malawi got off to a chaotic start this morning due to lack of materials such as the voters’ roll, ballot papers, ink, pens, and ballot boxes.  This resulted in many polling centres opening late.  There have also been reports of rioting, burning of some polling stations and destruction of polling materials by frustrated voters.  Several polling stations had not opened by noon.  The capacity of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to manage the logistics had always been an area of concern.
The MEC was frantically printing the final voters’ roll yesterday afternoon.  It also emerged that ballot papers were in short supply especially for the local government elections.  This state of affairs confirmed the elections situation room analysis that had highlighted as a concern that insufficient attention was being paid to the local government component of the election.  The MEC hastily convened a stakeholder meeting to decide how to respond to the emerging challenges.  In the final analysis the MEC took the decision to proceed with the election.
Given that a majority of polling stations did not open on time, the MEC extended poll station closing time from 18:00 to 21:00.  Presiding officers were also allowed discretion to decide if polling should be extended beyond 21:00.  The immediate concern was whether adequate arrangements had been made regarding lighting if people are voting in the night. Whether there are enough ballot materials for those stations that are going to open late, remains an issue.
Judging by long queues that were being reported on by the election situation room observers deployed on the ground as well as other observers, it appears that there was large voter turn-out.  Earlier there were reports of disturbances that included burning down of polling stations, rioting, looting, and suspension of voting in some stations.  The disturbances were largely attributed to frustration by voters at polling stations opening late.
The situation room faced a number of challenges especially with transmission and the processing of data.  On Monday internet for most of the service providers slowed dramatically.  When the more than 4000 observers deployed by the situation room started transmitting data it became clear that the majority of them were not following the observer checklist but tended to be focusing on incidents.  The situation room task force was able to convene a press briefing during which they highlighted concern about the chaotic manner in which the election had proceeded.  They also then met with the MEC to convey these concerns.  Another press by the situation room task force briefing is planned for tomorrow.
Counting of the ballots is now underway.  Given the late closing of the polling stations, it’s not clear at this stage when vote counting will be completed.  While the pre-electoral environment was peaceful and citizens were able to exercise meaningful choice, the shambolic manner in which election day proceedings were conducted undermined the credibility of the electoral process.  Given that the electoral process remains too close to call, the critical issue is going to be whether contestants are going to accept the outcome.      

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