The uncertain future for transitional justice in Zimbabwe

Emmerson Mnangagwa, then Vice-President and Minister of Justice, speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in 2016. Image Credit: UN Geneva

Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s newly inaugurated President, suggests that Zimbabwe is “witnessing the beginning of a new and unfolding democracy”. Many Zimbabweans, and those with an interest in the country, wonder whether that would include openness and some degree of truth and justice for political violence suffered under the 37 year regime of Mnangagwa’s predecessor, Robert Mugabe, and in which the army and ZANU-PF, now recast as “reformers,” were implicated.

The “reformers” are alleged to have been involved in heinous acts over the past four decades, including unlawful detention and torture of political opponents, purging and killing white farmers and political assassinations. The 1979 automobile death of then-presidential favorite Josiah Tongogara was one early attempt to consolidate the Mugabe’s power. Similar “car accidents” became a regime signature, designed to intimidate, if not eliminate, rivals such as Eddison Zvobgo and Morgan Tsvangirai. But, chief among all episodes of political violence perpetrated in Zimbabwe since Independence in 1980 is Gukurahundi – Mugabe and collaborators’ campaign to repress “dissidents” in the Ndebele-majority region of Matabeleland, killing an estimated 20,000 people.

Gukurahundi – loosely, “the rain which clears the chaff from the wheat” – though framed as subduing an insurgency was ethnic cleansing by any other name. In an open letter to Mugabe in 1983, exiled ZAPU opposition party leader, Joshua Nkomo, who also survived an assassination attempt, charged that the extent and routinization of political violence under the regime exceeded even that of the former Rhodesian government. Avoiding truth and justice was equally routinized.

One mechanism by which states can address abuses perpetrated under authoritarian government, or during conflict, is a truth commission. Generally, truth commissions aim to identify responsibility, support accountability, facilitate reconciliation between perpetrators and victims, and legitimize new governments. Truth-seeking is one mechanism of transitional justice. Others include criminal accountability, reparations, and institutional reform. Transitional justice is inherently imperfect: it is often attempted when “judicial systems are barely functioning or very weak, or are corrupt and politically biased, and prospects for serious prosecutions are slim.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Zimbabwe once attempted transitional justice, establishing a truth commission in 1985 to account for Gukurahundi. Curiously, the Zimbabwe Commission of Inquiry’s report was never released to the public. Why? The government argued that releasing the report would trigger ethnic violence. There was never a formal recognition of the killings and victims’ families never received reparations. As a consequence, whole segments of Zimbabwean society feel marginalized, discriminated against, and ever-suspicious of ZANU-PF.

Over the past few years, Mnangagwa strategically distanced himself from Mugabe, perhaps most strikingly with respect to Gukurahundi. Mnangagwa claims that he did not play an active role in the atrocities and assigns blame to Mugabe, Sidney Sekeramayi, and other military commanders. Yet Mnangagwa – then serving as Minister of State Security and leading the Central Intelligence Organisation — was involved, as has been reported by journalistshuman rights lawyers, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJP), and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch. During Gukurahundi, Mnangagwa argued that “the campaign against dissidents [could] only succeed if the infrastructure that nurture[d] them [was] destroyed.” He also confirmed that the army came to Matabeleland to “cleans[e] the area of the dissident menace” (The Chronicle, April 5, 1983). In the same statement, he even parodied Scriptures, pronouncing:

Blessed are they who will follow the path of the Government laws, for their days on earth shall be increased. But woe unto those who will choose the path of collaboration with dissidents for we will certainly shorten their stay on the earth.

The strength of the case against Mnangagwa is undeniable.

So, what future for Zimbabwe? Structural barriers make accountability for violence suffered before, after, and since Independence very unlikely. First, the Constitution provides for presidential immunity, a provision which the military has honored for Mugabe. By extension, it is unlikely that there will be trials or personnel reforms for former regime insiders, and certainly not for those aligned with Mnangagwa. What’s more, it is the Constitution, coupled with ZANU-PF party dominance, that provided the basis for then-vice president Mnangagwa to assume the presidency. In practical terms, this means that he, too, will enjoy immunity should he ever resign or be removed from office, and his successors thereafter. If truth, justice, reparation, and institutional reform rely on those who benefit without them, their implementation is scarcely conceivable. And, if 1985 serves as a signal, this next missed opportunity for transitional justice will be to a devastating effect.

Kelebogile Zvobgo

Kelebogile Zvobgo is PhD Candidate in political science and international relations at the University of Southern California.

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