ZIMBABWE: THE CRUDE ART OF ELECTORAL RIGGING
By Chenjerai Hove
Election time in Zimbabwe is also a time to perfect the art of election rigging. Yes, it is an art which goes beyond the borders of any fictional piece of writing. By definition, art is the practice of making something seem what it is not, that is, like making a story about monkeys flying to the moon for a feast. Imagine, monkeys and tortoises gluing wings onto their solid bodies, ensuring the wax is compact, and then embarking on the journey to the moon, all the time avoiding the direct rays of the sun, lest the wax melts. Written in magical words, such stories are believable although they never enter in the realm of truth and reality.
Unfortunately, human beings have the capacity and skills to make fiction look like reality and reality look like fiction. Who said reality, in some parts of the world, beats fiction? You were right, Carlos Fuentes, may your soul rest in peace.
Once upon a time, I took a voter’s role for the Mt Pleasant constituency in my attempt to understand the whole system of constituencies. I selected several hundred voters’ names to follow up for verification. To my utter disgust, the Chairman of the electoral commission himself, now late, was registered five times in the same constituency, with full details of name, address, national identity number, plus everything else. I marked this occurrence with red ink, many reds.
Then I selected streets to visit, verifying everything according to the electoral roll I had with me. Surprise: my assistant and I arrived at one so-called street, a small road leading to some senior ruling party official’s farm. Over a thousand voters were registered as inhabiting that empty piece of land. Not a single human being had ever inhabited the place. There were names of occupants of non-existent houses on both sides of the road, with their national identity numbers, names of wives and adult children included. All eligible to vote.
The following day, we decided that my assistant should take only the national identity numbers and verify with the registrar-general’s office the real location of the citizens’ details as given on the voters’ list. Fortunately, all national identity numbers show the bearer’s district as well as where and when the ID was first obtained. While she went to verify the districts, I was busy verifying the actual addresses of the voters according to the details given on the IDs.
Surprise: we discovered that hundreds of voters on that non-existent street were either dead or lived somewhere else – Mbare, Highfields, Kambuzuma townships, as well as distant places like Shamva, Bindura and Mt Darwin. To make it a national street, there was even a sprinkle of people from the south-western city, Bulawayo, who probably had never set foot in Harare.
On visiting and knocking on the registrar-general’s office, his glance at my face was like someone staring directly into the face of a fearsome and venomous black mamba. He banged his door and threatened to call the police to have me locked up if I stayed a minute long on the premises.
The next phase was to check all my dead relatives whom I had helped bury or knew about their deaths but was unable to attend the funerals. Five hundred was a bad sample. I obtained the voters’ rolls for several constituencies, and soon, my assistant and I got to work. Some had died as long as ten years before.
Surprise again: they were confirmed voters. They had all inspected and confirmed their names on the voters’ roll, ready to exercise their democratic right to vote. You see, in Zimbabwe even the dead have their rights too. They can elect their living representatives.
In the recent elections (July 31, 2013) over 150 000 registered voters were over the age of 103 years old in a country where life expectancy is only a mere 50 years and major government hospitals lack even a basic painkiller and pregnant women deliver babies on bare the bare, cold cement floors.
During the 1995 election, one constituency in the north-east of the country registered over 120 per cent voter turnout. On the occasion of announcing those bizarre figures, the Registrar-General himself made a dry smile, surprised at how much his rigging skills had achieved.
Intimidation is also part of the art of rigging. Imagine a poor villager who has never seen a mobile phone, let alone use it. He is told that there is nothing called a secret ballot. The little machine which enables the politician to talk to the whole world without the aid of a piece of wire, is also alleged to be able to see into so many private places. It can see you in your house, fields, at the river taking a bath, you sleeping with your wife in the depth of night. This little magic machine sees and knows it all, the ruling political man threatens. Poor, illiterate villager, he believes it, and no matter how much the slogans of ‘your vote is your secret’ are floated in the air, radio or TV, the villager is thoroughly intimidated. He does not want to die a bad death like his son whose body was found in the lake, already devoured by fish and other meat-eating inhabitants of the water.
Everybody generally trusts food of some kind. I believe to every disease, food is the best medicine. Food is not like shoes. It’s pointless to have a roof over your head when you have no food. Most wars which devoured millions of innocent civilians have been fought over food or the possibility of someone depriving you of a place to grow or obtain food. Hitler called it ‘lebensraum,’ living space for growing and eating food. The moon, for example, is not lebensraum because no food grows there.
‘Vote for me or starve to death,’ President Robert Mugabe says to the villager, with vultures flying above, waiting for its share of your flesh in case you are starved to death by one who should provide emergency food for all who need it. And the villager remembers many who have been starved to death.
Intimidated and humiliated, the poor villager remembers the many shades of the solitude of village life and death, and elections which he wishes would never arrive in his village again. For, Zimbabwe elections are a time of mourning, a time for to smell death in every gust of the wind.
As the poor villager is driven to the voting centre by armed men and women, elections seem a gate to a concentration camp. The furiously armed soldiers, meanwhile, order everyone to pretend ‘illiteracy’ at the polling station in order to be ‘assisted’ to vote. ‘Assisted’ simply means the partisan police officer takes you into the voting booth to show you exactly who to vote for if you aspire to be on the surface of the earth much longer after the elections.
At election time in my cruel, beloved homeland, the soldiers remind the voters of the many ways of death – torture, rape, public humiliation, disappearance, threats of being burned alive in your village grass-thatched house, electrocution by connecting wires to your private parts, or coca cola bottles pushed into the women’s private parts.
And the village head is also on standby, threatening to exile you from his fiefdom if you vote the wrong way.
Now enter technology on the scene. The expert riggers are active. Press a button, and the whole constituency changes its political colour. But this time, the registered voter was not even assured of the vote. Someone pressed a button to erase many names of young voters who are likely to vote for a politician of their choice. Or if your name is there, you are allocated a voting station far away from where you live. As an unemployed university graduate, you cannot afford the bus fare to a place you have never set foot, far away, and the officers don’t even know where that place is. And you give up and curse; ‘To hell with this madness, you can keep your elections to yourself,’ and walk back home covered with the cloth of a deep sadness and despair.
A few days later, the Chief of Elections, a Supreme Court judge, announces the ‘overwhelming, landslide victory’ for President Robert Mugabe, unofficial president-for- life. The current miracle of the art of rigging is the unbelievable electoral fact that voters in a region where President is most hated for past sins of human massacres and deliberate attempts to starve everyone to death, Zimbabweans of those areas ‘willingly’ voted for their bitterest enemy, Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
The elections were free and fair, a credible reflection of the Zimbabwean people’s will, by ‘African standards,’ says Nigerian former military ruler, Olusegun Obasanjo, on behalf of the African continent. ‘There is no such thing as a perfect election,’ he concludes, as sad and angry Zimbabweans walk home under the dark cloud of total dismay amid prospects of another five years of economic ruin and cultural solitude of exile. Night and day, every democratically- minded Zimbabwean wonders what these ‘African standards’ of democracy are in which 8.7 million ballot papers are printed for a mere 6.4 million voters.
For now, African diplomats and presidents flood European tailoring shops for the latest designer suits in preparation for ‘hero’ Mugabe’s inauguration, all devoid of conscience and vision for the continent’s future, a celebration of eternal power and personal aggrandisement.
© Chenjerai Hove, August, 2013
Chenjerai Hove (b. 1956) is a leading figure of post-colonial Zimbabwean literature. A severe critic of Robert Mugabe, Chenjerai was forced into exile in 2001. He has since been living in France, Norway and the US, where he was hosted under the Stavanger and Miami City of Refuge programme.