Today: April 24, 2024

How traditional leaders help to rig elections on voting day in Zimbabwe

In this piece, I seek to partly demonstrate how some traditional leaders rig elections in favour of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) on the voting day in marginal rural areas. I go further to suggest some practical interventions as a way to ignite wider debates ahead of Zimbabwe’s 2023 general election. This is based on insights drawn from a history of researching electoral politics in Zimbabwe.

My intervention follows Kembo Mohadi’s public claim on the political positioning of Chiefs or traditional leaders on 20 April 2023. Mohadi is one of ZANU PF’s deputy leaders. Mohadi claimed that Chiefs have assured ZANU PF a massive victory in the 2023 general election. According to Mohadi, the agreement between ZANU PF and the Chiefs espouses that ‘on voting day, the headman will marshal his subjects and ensure they have all voted before he votes last’.

Most Zimbabwean commentators have correctly castigated Mohadi’s statement on the basis that it violates Chapter 15 of the Constitution that bars traditional leaders from being partisan and have reinforced the important need for civic education on the constitutional role of Chiefs. I take a slightly different angle that seeks to empirically substantiate Mohadi’s claims which were just but a tip of the iceberg.

This is important given that the institution of traditional chieftaincy is not on the verge of disappearing in Zimbabwe. Even the nationalist movements’ efforts to eliminate the traditional institution on the eve of African independence about half a century ago on the basis that it clashed with the liberation vision for political equality and democracy have largely failed on the continent.

Reader, I am aware that traditional leaders are not a homogeneous bloc in Zimbabwe. However, a significant number of them continue to play a partisan political role in ways that undermine electoral democracy.

Some traditional leaders distribute party-state patronage, openly campaign for the ruling party elites and at times punish opposition supporters living under their customary jurisdiction. It is important to note that their alliances also include antagonisms with the ruling elites which means power between them is ever contested.

Nevertheless, the traditional leaders do not just rely on political alliances, hard power, the law and their control over customary land. The chiefs also widely appeal to cultural, historical, spiritual and social legitimacy in complex ways.

This is located in their day-to day social and administrative functions in the villages outside the volatile electoral calendar. In some rural constituencies, the traditional system is like a religion as the Chief’s word is said to be final.

The Chiefs therefore become a coveted target for co-option by some politicians to help manipulate elections in distinct ways during the electoral cycle and in particular on the voting day, which is the focus of this article.

Reader, on the voting day, some village heads ‘paddock voters’, that is they shepherd voters to the polling booth, which makes many voters feel that they are under surveillance and therefore fail to vote freely. The village heads assemble people at their homesteads early morning on the voting day before polling stations open.

The village heads then assign a leader to accompany the voters to the polling station as a group, with instructions to vote for ZANU PF. Voters are then directed to stand in a polling queue behind their assigned leader so that their vote can be ‘ascertained’, thus removing their choice.

Reader, this trend was prevalent in the eleven wards of Zhombe constituency in Midlands province in the 2013 general election and this was replicated in Bikita West in the 2017 by-election and other rural constituencies like Mudzi where it was dubbed ‘sabhuku nevanhu vako’ (the village head with his/her people) in the 2018 general election.

Fear is reinforced as traditional leaders actually man some entries to the polling stations writing down names of people who would have voted, as was the case at Kebvunde primary school in Mutoko North in Mashonaland East province in 2013. Such practices make citizens living in the rural areas afraid to vote freely as ZANU-PF has a record of punishing —even killing—those who vote against it as happened in June 2008.

Reader, hand-in-hand with the paddocking of voters is that some traditional leaders also tell voters to record the two digits of the ballot serial number during voting, and submit them to ZANU PF’s ‘depository centres’ set up by the ruling party activists working with village heads and ‘boys on leave’ (partisan members of the security sector deployed in villages during elections).

Villagers are usually terrorised so that they can leave their ballot serial numbers at the depository centers. For example, in Mutorashanga in Mashonaland West province, Kamushinda’s house was used as the depository centre where people had to go with their ballot serial numbers.

This was also pronounced and widespread in wards 4, 10, 11 and 12 of Nyanga South in Manicaland province in 2013 as well as in the 2018 general election. This serves to instill fear among the citizens and to make them believe that their vote is not a secret.

In some cases, village heads force suspected opposition supporters to feign illiteracy so that they can assist them to vote. This is why the number of assisted voters has been high in the 2018 general election and the March 2022 by-elections reaching up to 30% of voters at some polling stations.

This is both a continuing and a historic trend. For example, in Mt Darwin North on the 31st of July 2013, in the early morning before polling stations opened, people had to assemble at the homesteads of their headmen. The headman had a list of suspected opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters, relatives of MDC officials and youths aged between 18 and 35 years who were not active in ZANU PF.

All these were assigned ZANU-PF supporters to assist them to vote on the false basis that they were unable to write. Even a Roman Catholic Church Bishop like Mr Chakaipa in ward 4 was said to be unable to write an X but ironically, he was able to read the bible and preach every Sunday.

Coercing opposition members and potential voters to agree to be treated as ‘assisted voters’ whereas they can read and write reduce them to subjects and compromise the integrity of the elections.

In addition, some traditional leaders are deployed as election agents for ZANU PF candidates on the voting day in violation of the Constitution. For example, during the 2018 general election in marginal ward 4 in Gokwe at Chireya and Kayenga polling stations, traditional leaders were deployed as election agents representing ZANU PF candidates. These were village heads for Nerwande, Ruvhute and Mavi villages.

The voting day is a real site of political struggles requiring robust strategies and tactics to detect, deter and mitigate fraud and manipulation in the coming general election.

Practical interventions might therefore include but are not limited to: sustained collective struggles to democratise the post-colonial traditional customary institution; building local resilience through establishing community protection mechanisms such as village based peace committees; hedging citizens against risk through increasing the number of accredited observers from local civil society organisations; encourage and lobby for the physical presence of Southern African Development Community, African Union, European Union and other foreign observers in the often neglected but volatile rural constituencies on the voting day to build confidence in the communities.

This works better in a context where there would have been long term observers deployed two months ahead of the polls and one month after the voting day; advocating for non-partisan recruitment of polling officers and for meticulous verification of election agents; deploying vigilant polling agents at all polling stations in rural areas; coordinating and setting up rapid response contacts in the rural provinces; politically educating targeted communities to engage in more subtle covert means of resistance on voting day in ways that still enable them to express their will through the ballot.

This happened in rural Matabeleland in the 2000 parliamentary election to the surprise of ZANU PF and in Zambia during Michael Sata’s 2011 ‘Don’t Kubeba’ [Do not tell] successful presidential campaign. There is need to counter electoral manipulation strategies in the rural hinterland and to strengthen Zimbabwe’s chain of democratic choice. Otherwise for the majority of the people living in rural areas they will continue to vote without a choice as ‘subjects’ rather than as citizens.

Reader, for more views on how elections are rigged read: Zamchiya, P., 2020. ‘Inside Competitive Electoral Authoritarianism in Zimbabwe, 2008–2018’ in Miles Tendi, JoAnn McGregor, and Jocelyn Alexander (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Zimbabwean Politics. (online edn, Oxford Academic , 9 July 2020 ),

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