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The liberation promise and the one man one vote: Is the gun still mightier than the pen?

By Jack Zaba

Faced by a sustained emasculation of their natural resources, including land and minerals as well as untrammelled degradation of their civil and political liberties, both female and male Zimbabweans were left with no option than to confront the white settler colonial regime. The gallant Zimbabweans, were driven by three cardinal principles in pursuit of restoration of human dignity, these included; desire for equality, non-discrimination and respect for human rights, inalienable need for just, equitable land redistribution and one man one vote. As Zimbabwe commemorates the 42nd Heroes Day celebrations, Zimbabweans remain endeared to these foundational principles. Relatedly, the enduring democratisation struggle, driven currently by a new crop of brave Zimbabweans is premised on their desire for equality and cherished respect of political rights and essentially the fulfilment of the one-man-one-vote principle that our liberators originally fought for.

In its general principles of democratic elections, Zimbabwe`s Electoral Act, Section 3 nearly sustains provisions of Article 21 Universal Declaration for Human Rights which enjoins member states to the principle that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures”. As such, post-independence Zimbabwe has been lauded for remaining steadfast to holding periodic elections. No opportunity has been missed in holding electoral events that were due, except for the negotiated moratorium on by-elections during the 2009-2013 government of national unity and of course the COVID-19 induced suspension of electoral activities. Accordingly, since independence in 1980, Zimbabwe conducted nine legislative elections and six presidential elections.

As the country commendably adhered to the aspect of periodic elections, the attainment of “elections that are conducted efficiently, freely, fairly, transparently and properly on the basis of universal and equal suffrage exercised through a secret ballot” as prescribed in the Electoral Act, section 3(a) remains largely unfulfilled. Electoral rights in post-independence Zimbabwe have encountered sustained degradation leading to unmitigated electoral conflict, disputes and perforation of electoral integrity. While the country`s liberators were compelled by the need for a fair electoral administration framework and free environment for citizens to express their rights and freedom of choice, citizens remain hindered by excesses of the state apparatus or unscrupulous political actors who consistently thrive on manipulating the electoral processes. Electoral politics in Zimbabwe has become a dangerous political minefield which is highly toxic and disruptive to desired socio-economic development. The current toxicity in the electoral environment may have been the hidden truth contained in late President Robert Mugabe`s infamous statement in a radio broadcast from Mozambique in 1976, summing up his view of electoral democracy, he had remarked:

“Our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer-its guarantor. The people`s votes and the people`s guns are always inseparable”. (Meredith,2005)

While the above statement was said a few years before independence, its notion became the enduring inhibitor on electoral democracy following attainment of independence and indeed throughout the 42 years of independence in Zimbabwe. The character and texture of electoral politics betrayed and continuously defy the original principle of one-man-one-vote as desired by the freedom fighters who faced a ruthless white settler regime to reclaim their electoral rights amongst other fundamental principles which inspired the war of liberation. Indeed, the gun and its beholders remain the albatross in people`s desire for credible elections.

Many schools of thought emerged in trying to explain why electoral democracy in Zimbabwe is consistently being degraded. The undesirable elements of electoral politics during the colonial era remain at play during the current electoral jurisdiction. Vices like discrimination of citizens from exercising their rights, state perpetrated violence against election competitors, capture of election administration system, manipulation of election adjudication system and outright manipulation of the election results are enduring and continue to blight the cherished integrity of elections. There seems to be no dispute in terms of whether Zimbabwe is meeting the mark of electoral integrity as originally desired by the country`s liberators from the colonial regime as demonstrated by near similarity of observations made by election observer missions which assessed the 2018 elections and previous polls.

As the country celebrates the courage exhibited by both our living and late heroes and heroines it remains an undisputed fact that the fight for electoral democracy which is truly reflective of the ideals of the war of liberation is unfinished. This enjoins all Zimbabweans who respect observance of political and civil rights to complete the journey that was started by our war liberators in respect of one-man-one-vote, or more broadly electoral rights. What they started remains outstanding on the democratization agenda in view of sustained electoral disputes which emanate from consistently undemocratic actions of some electoral stakeholders as well as an electoral environment which inhibit full enjoyment of electoral rights.

In celebrating heroes’ day, it is important for the current and future crops of democracy activists or those desirous of electoral reforms to continue defending the principle of one-man-one-vote. It is important to note that the principle was not guided by hate of color or race of the white settler governments which controlled the colonial state, instead the principle emanated from the inalienable need for equality and respect of civil and political rights regardless of one`s colour. While we remain indebted to our liberators for fighting the good fight that made universal suffrage a reality, its practice in the post-independence state must be devoid of vestiges of the colonial era.

The continued fight for observance of the ideals of the liberation struggles must not only focus on ensuring equitable land redistribution, but also transcend to include guaranteed non-discrimination and inalienable right to freely choose leaders through credible elections. Accordingly, the sustained fight for fulfilling the ideals of the liberation struggle in respect of the principle of one-man-one-vote must be targeted towards eliminating the following vices;

• Intrusion into election administration by external elements including the security sector, some members of the ruling party and other political actors. This can be achieved through ring-fencing the electoral commission from control or intimidation from serving members of the security sector. Realizing the historic conflation of the security sector and the ruling ZANU PF party which pre-dates the attainment of independence, allowing active members of the security sector to be entangled in election administration inevitably creates an uneven playing field. In this regard, the next big fight which should be carried over from our liberation war heroes and heroines is security sector reforms focused on eliminating intrusion into administration of elections.

• Expanding electoral rights in a sustainable way which includes removing restrictions on political participation by civil society and opposition formations. Recent actions in which the police service routinely barred opposition formations from conducting political gatherings are inimical to the ideals of the liberation struggle. Equally, the continued “electoral apartheid” which through convenient interpretation of the constitution takes away the voting rights of Zimbabweans in the diaspora negates the principle of one-man-one-vote which our liberators fought for.

• Chlorinating the electoral and political environment in a manner that sustains fundamental freedoms of expression, association and movement. This will include putting a durable conflict management systems and strong measures to eliminate violence related to elections. It is therefore important to exorcise the ghost of political violence and dismantle the instruments of violence which remain in the firm grip of the state and the governing party.

• To mitigate against unending election related disputes, the judiciary must perform its role in a fair manner. As such it is paramount to eliminate capture of the electoral dispute resolution framework in pursuit of a justice system that is fair.

• Ensuring institutions responsible for electoral management remain truly independent and not amenable to the whims of political actors which shall ensure security of the vote.

Our freedom fighters did a sterling job in dismantling a parasitic settler colonial regime which thrived on trampling on civil and political rights to extend its hegemony. However, in a context where the post-independence state either by omission or commission shows signs and desires to relapse and replay the authoritarian playbook of the colonial state, citizens must be emboldened by the gallant actions of our liberators to continue the fight for equality and observance of civil and political rights. They did it, our role now is to defend what our heroes and heroines delivered upon us.

Jack Zaba is a political scientist and elections expert with over 16 years’ experience working on elections in Zimbabwe and across Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.


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