Zimbabwe election: Chicken and chips put a taste for democracy to the test
By Shingai Nyoka I BBC Africa
Free fried chicken and an endorsement from an unbeaten former world boxing champion have formed part of the intriguing choreography of election campaigning in Zimbabwe.
Nonetheless, finger-licking crowds and cheers for US boxing legend Floyd Mayweather Jr have not distracted from fundamental concerns about the polls themselves and fears of vote rigging in the first election since the death of Robert Mugabe, the man who dominated Zimbabwean politics for decades before being ousted by his deputy, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, in 2017.
Wednesday’s vote will see President Mnangagwa, the candidate of the ruling Zanu-PF party, being challenged by Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) and nine other contenders.
A small online civic society group says it is gearing up to do what it can to protect the vote, which sees 6.62 million registered voters also choosing MPs and local councillors.
Team Pachedu will be using an app called Mandla, meaning strength, to help monitor “hotspots” it feels Zanu-PF “takes advantage of” – a reference to a belief that the ruling party’s long stay in power has been the result of rigging.
“It is a strategy to track election results data as they come out of the polling stations, to see if they will tally with official results,” Team Pachedu’s co-ordinator Tafadzwa Sambiri told the BBC. The group is mostly made up of Zimbabwean activists based outside the country.
Zanu-PF has persistently dismissed allegations that it steals elections.
“We as government have an obligation to be seen to be clean about this election,” party spokesman Chris Mutsvangwa told the media recently. “The president is working hard… reaching out for each vote.”
Mr Mnangagwa is anxious to get an international stamp of approval so Zimbabwe’s foreign debt can be restructured and potentially open up fresh lines of credit frozen more than 20 years ago.
The ruling party itself has deep pockets. This was on display during the campaign, with the party dishing out fried chicken and chip meals from a popular fast food outlet and loaves of bread in packaging printed with “VoteED” – a reference to the president’s initials.
Tens of thousands have flocked to the meetings lining up alongside trucks to receive the food.
Zanu-PF, which has been in power since independence in 1980, denies that it is trying to buy votes, maintaining it is showing “respect for people” who have travelled from afar on buses by giving them food and water.
Last month, Mayweather flew into the country aboard a private jet and at the behest of prominent gold dealer Scott Sakupwanya, an aspiring Zanu-PF MP for Mabvuku – an opposition stronghold in the capital, Harare.
After conducting some boxing drills in the constituency, Mayweather hosted a business dinner and then met Mr Mnangagwa at State House, where the two, in matching scarfs in the colours of the Zimbabwean flag, swapped presents, and he urged voters to back the president.
But behind such razzmatazz, human rights groups report that threats, intimidation and violence are on the rise.
Zimbabwe Peace Project recorded 84 violations in the first two weeks of August, including the death of an opposition CCC supporter during an ambush by alleged ruling party activists.
Director Jestina Mukoko told the BBC that the main incidents had been arson, assaults, kidnapping threats and intimidation – all related to the elections and mainly perpetrated by Zanu-PF.
State institutions had been complicit, with police violently breaking up and banning rallies, she said.
The police blame the opposition for conducting rallies outside agreed times and changing their routes – and say those linked to the death of the CCC supporter have been arrested.
Zanu-PF distanced itself from the violence, with Mr Mutsvangwa saying: “A criminal who breaks law and order does not belong to a party. He is a criminal.”
Mr Chamisa has decided to take part in the election despite reservations about its fairness.
He points out that promised reforms have not been implemented, including an audited voters’ roll checked and signed off by all parties and equal access to state media. The Media Monitoring Project reports that Zanu-PF has had 62% of coverage, compared to 16% for CCC.
Monitors describe this as one of Zimbabwe’s most litigious elections with more than 100 court cases related to the disqualification of mainly opposition candidates.
Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Douglas Mwonzora has urged the other opposition leaders to follow his lead and boycott the “sham” polls, decrying a predestined outcome.
The party is still taking part in the parliamentary vote, although 87 of its candidates have been disqualified from running following a payment dispute with Zec.
Mr Mwonzora also accuses the electoral body of recently amending the law relating to postal voting, and changing boundaries at the last minute, meaning voters may not know their assigned polling station have changed.
Freeman Chari, co-ordinator of an activist monitoring group CredibleVote, says research has revealed glaring anomalies in the voters’ roll with “millions of people shifted from their traditional voting areas in opposition strongholds”.
He told the BBC that in previous elections certain polling stations had reported dubious results, especially in Mashonaland East, Mashonaland Central and Masvingo.
He gave Kanyemba, in rural Mashonaland Central Province, as an example, saying several areas there had recorded 100% voter registration and turnout rates – with more people casting their ballots than in other more densely populated areas.
Zec rejects the accusations as malicious. With 83% of those eligible to vote registered, chairperson Priscilla Chigumba says the commission is ready to conduct free and fair elections within the law.
Team Pachedu is working with partners, observers and political parties to send volunteer agents to polling stations.
Its app is now live and available for agents to download. The group appealed for more volunteers to step up to protect the vote, especially in rural areas where the ruling party is dominant.
“We also have image access [of certified voting return forms]. We don’t want a situation as in 2018 when people went to the street and lives were lost, demanding to know the results,” Mr Sambiri said.
It is the high cost of living and a lack of opportunities that have dominated the campaign.
Mr Chamisa’s manifesto – A New Great Zimbabwe – pledges to restore opportunities and hope, as the country battles resurgent economic problems.
He plans to scrap the volatile local currency, tackle corruption and provide free education.
President Mnangagwa did not produce a manifesto, saying his work speaks for itself.
While there is a boom in mining and agriculture and heavy investment in roads, dams and energy, the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans have barely changed.
Inflation, which was in the single digits in late 2017 when he took over after Mr Mugabe was ousted, now stands at more than 100%.
He is also criticised by human rights groups for introducing repressive legislation and jailing critics.
Several journalists, including from South African media, Al-Jazeera and Voice of America, have been refused accreditation in the last week, which has sparked condemnation.
But Mr Mnangagwa has urged observers to come “with an open mind” and without “foregone conclusions”.
“I want to make this clear; no-one is qualified to teach us democracy. We were never given our democracy on a silver platter,” he said over the weekend.
“We fought for it. We acquired it ourselves.”