How a technological solution backfired in Zimbabwe’s elections

  • Cyril Zenda
  • 7 Aug 2018

What was expected to solve a big problem in Zimbabwe’s election ended up creating a bigger one.

Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU PF party is not only accused of serious voter fraud in the August general elections but also criticised for using the military and militias to intimidate voters and also stifle dissent. ( AP )

HARARE — Opposition parties and civil society organisations in Zimbabwe pushed for electoral reforms that included the adoption of a Biometric Voters’ Roll (BVR) in the hope of eliminating the perennial problem of ghost voters in the country’s politically hostile elections.

Its adoption was welcomed as a sure way of plugging a loophole that the ruling ZANU PF party allegedly used to exploit in rigging elections. Introduced with the funding and technical assistance from the United Nations Development Programme and other development partners before the government later took it over, this solution – while solving one problem – created a new headache for the opposition.

While it eliminated the problem of ghost voters, the use of the BVR system made voter intimidation easy in a country where a majority of the electorate are old and less educated rural people. More than 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s population lives in rural areas.

Although voting is not compulsory in Zimbabwe, the villagers were made to believe that the BVR registration was a requirement to benefit from government relief food and farming input programmes and therefore village chiefs and other traditional leaders – who pledged their support for the ruling party – actively assisted the ruling party in the misinformation and intimidation campaign by making voter registration and voting compulsory.

Supporters watch from the street as a press conference by opposition leader Nelson Chamisa gets underway in Harare, Zimbabwe, Friday Aug. 3, 2018.(AP)

With their fingerprints, facial features and other biometric details collected in the voter registration process, ruling party militia and soldiers went on a door-to-door campaign recording BVR registration slip serial numbers. The militias warned the villagers that anyone who voted for the opposition would do so at their own peril as the new (BVR) system would make it easy to identify the “sell-outs” as the ballot papers cast for opposition candidates would be scanned for fingerprints and the “culprits” identified and dealt with.

“They (ZANU PF militia) used to go from homestead to homestead and village to village warning us of the danger of voting for the opposition and this scared many of us because past experience made us take the threats seriously,” said McLloyd Mutyambizi of Goora village in Madziwa communal areas of Mashonaland central province.

The fears of voters were further heightened when, just a day before the elections, the ruling party sent personalized messages to individual voter’s mobile phones asking them to vote for President Emmerson Mnangagwa and other ZANU PF candidates and thanking them in advance for their “guaranteed” votes.

Phineas Matsilele, a teacher in Malipati, a remote area in Chiredzi district of Masvingo province, said when he and several other villagers received the messages on their mobile phones they felt the government was able to monitor how they vote.

“They always reminded me that unlike in the past, they now have the details of everyone so we should not put our lives and that of our families in danger by doing a stupid thing like voting for the opposition, so when I got two messages [from ZANU PF candidates] on my phone, I felt vulnerable because this convinced me that the threats were true,” he said.

Sylvia Maphosa, a female pedestrian, was shot and killed by the army on August 1 during election-related demonstrations in Zimbabwe's capital Harare.(AP)

Unlike in the past when voters could go and vote at any of the several polling stations in each constituency, the new BVR system restricted voters to specific polling stations, making them even more vulnerable to monitoring and intimidation.

Arthur Gwagwa, an international researcher who specialises in Cyber Threats Modelling during political events said the practice was invasive and violated broadcasting and telecommunication regulations.

“It makes voters feel that if the president has my personal contact details, what else does he know about me? Probably he knows where I live since voters are registered when they subscribe to mobile service providers. The process also includes disclosing one’s home address. The voters also feel that if they have my number and other details, they will monitor my voting pattern and know who I voted for,” Gwagwa said.

The ruling party made feeble attempts to deny reports that 5,000 army officers had been deployed in the rural areas to force people to vote for it. 

Although both the army and ZANU PF officially denied the allegations, the military involvement in politics that resulted in former president Robert Mugabe being toppled from power last November makes it difficult to separate the army and the ruling party. 

Former Zimbabwe National Army commander, General Constantine Chiwenga, is now vice president, while former Airforce chief, Perrence Shiri, and Brigadier General Sibusiso Moyo – who announced the military takeover in November – are both now government ministers.

The screenshot of messages sent to voters from the president's office.(TRTWorld)

Fears were not helped by the appointment of Lieutenant General Angelbert Rugeje as the ZANU PF national political commissar. The former senior army official openly threatened villagers with a repeat of the brutal election violence of 2008, in which more than 200 opposition members and supporters were killed and thousands injured and maimed after former president Robert Mugabe had lost the first round of the election.

The use of the military to instill fear in voters is not new in Zimbabwe. In the 1980 elections, members of the ZANU PF armed wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) used the same tactics when a majority of its fighters did not go into assembly points when a ceasefire was declared. They remained in the villages instead, disguised as villagers, intimidating voters to vote for the party. Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s chief strategist then.

So serious was the intimidation campaign in the rural areas that a rural teachers’ body had to seek a court order barring ZANU PF from abusing them and school children by force-marching them to its campaign rallies.

Commonwealth election observers take position on a rooftop as a press conference by opposition leader Nelson Chamisa gets underway in Harare, Zimbabwe, Friday Aug. 3, 2018. The riot police disrupted the press gathering, however.(AP)

The strategy appeared to have worked as results from last week’s disputed elections showed huge margins between Mnangagwa and the other 22 presidential contenders. Data uploaded on the website of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission showed that at hundreds of polling stations in constituencies like Muzarabani, Uzumba, Maramba-Pfungwe, Chiredzi and others, Mnangagwa alone got up to 500 votes with most of the other candidates getting nothing. Even his closest rival, Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), got single digit – and sometimes even zero – votes at some of these remote polling stations. The same trend also applied to legislative and local government candidates.

Kenneth Mufuka, a professor of African History at Lander University in the United States of America, who was in Zimbabwe in the run-up to the elections, said many of the rural folks he spoke to were terrified from past election experience.

“In 2013 (Lt-Gen) Rugeje conducted pungwes [war-time all-night political meetings] of old women in the villages of Gutu [in Masvingo province] where he told them in no uncertain terms what would happen to them [if they supported the opposition]. I spoke to many of them,” Mufuka said.

He said even in his home area of Chiweshe, Mashonaland Central province to the northeast of the capital, he heard the same stories of widespread voter intimidation.

“This [Rugeje] is the man who was in charge of the [ZANU PF] 2018 elections [campaign]. The issue is that the experiences of 2008 and 2013, where people were beaten and killed and homes burnt down, are still fresh in their memories.”

The elections, which retained ZANU PF in power, are the subject of a dispute as the main opposition MDC has rejected the results as “fake.”

In its interim election report, the European Union observer mission noted that the election failed the credibility test, with voter intimidation being one of the reasons.