How bad was life in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, the brutal kleptocrat who held power in that sorrowful nation for almost 40 years? This bad: When the British mercenary Simon Mann tried to break out of Zimbabwe’s infamous Chikarubi prison in 2007, he had a queue of guards whispering in his ear, asking if he would please take them with him.
From the end of white minority rule in 1980 until the military coup that removed him in 2017, Mugabe was the only head of state that Zimbabwe had ever known. But he wasn’t much of an improvement for the country formerly known as Rhodesia, so named for Cecil Rhodes, the white supremacist mining magnate who also lent his name to the Rhodes Scholarship. Over the course of his four-decade reign, Mugabe robbed his nation blind, leaving a trail of corruption, famine, political violence, and even mass murder that marks him as one of the most terrible dictators in the history of the continent (which is saying something).
But clearly, a despot who blithely sports a wispy Hitler mustache is not a man who cares much what the rest of the world thinks.
Mugabe’s successor was his own vice president and longtime deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had led the 2017 putsch against him. A year later, Zimbabwe was to hold an election to decide its next president, with Mnangagwa facing off against the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But less than four months before election day, Tsvangirai died of cancer, leaving a forty-year-old attorney, party official, and former member of Parliament named Nelson Chamisa as the MDC’s candidate.
The Danish filmmaker Camilla Nielsson’s 2021 documentary President is a gripping vérité account of that election that tells a riveting tale—and a cautionary one—about how elections are stolen in the modern era. You’ll have to read to the end of this piece to learn how it turns out, but I’ll offer a spoiler right here, one that ought not to surprise anyone who’s been paying attention for the last five years: her film provides a disturbing echo of what we Americans encountered in our own presidential election of 2020, and a chilling preview of what we may well face in 2024.
(President will have its US broadcast premiere nationwide on “POV” on August 8th. Check your local listings, as local airdates and times do vary.)
MR. SMITH GOES TO HARARE
Were Nielsson’s documentary a Hollywood film, people would complain that the casting is too absurdly on-the-nose. Handsome, charismatic, and eloquent, Nelson Chamisa is full of gravitas, intelligence, and integrity, inspiring rock star-like adulation from a Zimbabwean public that sees him as its only hope for ending decades of corruption. Initially dismissed by some as too young and inexperienced, he quickly proves to be a transformational politician, one who made his bones in the most dramatic manner. (Nielsson shows us BBC file footage of him after being beaten nearly to death in 2007 by goons from the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front, Mugabe’s party, and now Mnangagwa’s.)
MDC’s signature gesture is the “open hand,” held aloft to represent honesty and transparency. ”Show me your hands!” Chamisa cries out to his adoring campaign crowds, who respond with arms held high and palms forward, a stirring sight. Throughout the film, Nielsson’s up-close-and-personal access to the candidate and his team is astounding, speaking to the level of trust the pro-democracy opposition has for the filmmaker, after 12 years of working with her.
Meanwhile, Mnangagwa oozes menace as he assures the international press that his government will conduct a “free, fair, and credible election.” Asked if he will abide by the result, Mnangagwa swears that he will…. easy to do, because he knows that he controls that process and will personally determine the winner.
Mugabe himself had come to power by democratic means, winning the presidency in a landslide in 1980 ahead of the country’s final emancipation from white rule. His commitment to that form of governance did not last long. Under his leadership, ZANU-PF had a long tradition of rigging elections, including those in 2002 and 2008 that pitted him against Tsvangirai. Bobby did not win the presidency time and time again because he was beloved, and it is clear in the film that Mnangagwa embraced the same strategy in 2018.
ZEC—the Zimbabwean Election Commission—which is responsible for overseeing the election and counting the vote, proves to be a shameless tool of the regime, even as Mnangagwa’s ministers risibly insist they have no control over it. ZEC begins printing ballots without MDC’s participation, and denies the opposition access to the voter rolls. In a country roiled with hunger, ZANU-PF distributes food at its rallies in exchange for votes and threatens to cut off that sustenance if support wavers.
Just two weeks before voters go to the polls, Chamisa contemplates pulling out of the race over these and other howling irregularities, but he and his advisors soon realize that ZEC is deliberately trying to provoke that very response. For Mnangagwa, it is a win-win. Chamisa ultimately stays in the race, betting that he can still prevail, and counting on an overwhelming numerical victory that would be impossible to deny. But he and his team vastly underestimate Mnangagwa’s willingness to commit armed robbery in broad daylight and get away with it.
When election day finally comes, turnout and passion are on Chamisa’s side. As the MDC tallies the numbers and sees that it has definitively won, ZEC delays releasing any official results—an ominous sign. While the vote count carries on behind closed doors, with only ZANU-PF allowed access to the process, the MDC’s offices are raided by the police, its computers seized, and its staffers arrested. Chamisa himself is forced into hiding due to death threats. When angry Zimbabweans spill into the streets, Nielsson films the violence as the army puts down the protests via truncheon and gunfire, killing six and wounding many more. Her matter-of-fact documentation of that brutality is executed with the same lack of sensationalism as the rest of the film, giving the lie to ZANU-PF’s attempts to downplay the violence.
After several days of highly suspicious delay, ZEC declares Mnangagwa the winner by a scant 32,000 votes—a brazen theft papered over with only the thinnest veneer of legality. Chamisa and the MDC denounce the process as rigged and the case eventually winds up in the Zimbabwean Supreme Court, which—surprise!—is also controlled by ZANU-PF. The justices inevitably announce that MDC has not produced any evidence of fraud and pronounce Mnangagwa the winner.
NOTHING TO SEE HERE, FOLKS
Maddeningly, Western coverage of the election largely bought into the ZANU-PF narrative.
The BBC announced Mnangagwa’s victory in anodyne, unquestioning terms, noting only that “The chairman of Mr. Chamisa’s MDC Alliance said the count could not be verified.” Even the reliably liberal Guardian wrote blandly that Mnangagwa “has won the country’s historic and hotly contested presidential election,” and reported ZEC’s official, rigged numbers without comment. It then quoted (and reprinted, in an enormous color illustration) Mnangagwa’s victory tweet that he was “humbled to be elected President,” and that “This is a new beginning. Let us join hands, in peace, unity & love, & together build a new Zimbabwe for all!” Though it did mention his implication in Mugabe’s crimes and the killing of protestors, in passing, the paper didn’t get around to noting any allegations of fraud until the sixth paragraph, and then only in a manner that suggests sour grapes: “Chamisa called the results ‘fake’ and said the electoral commission should release ‘proper and verified’ numbers.”
The New York Times took at face value the Zimbabwean Supreme Court’s subsequent decision affirming Mnangagwa’s win, writing that “international and domestic observers….described the election campaign as free and peaceful,” and “not marred by the widespread fraud alleged by the opposition.” Wikipedia’s entry on the election presents the election as completely unremarkable, barely mentioning fraud at all.
To be fair, the credulousness was not universal. The Times’ editorial board railed against the election, as did the political scientist Vasabjit Banerjee, who wrote in the Washington Post that international acceptance of ZANU-PF’s “latest dubious win….would confirm yet another Zimbabwean election as a successful performance by authoritarian rulers to satisfy international audiences.” But by and large, the reaction of the mainstream Western media was largely uncritical.
Looking back, Nielsson remains astonished by this willingness to go along with the charade.
“Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s henchman,” she told me when we spoke recently. “He was his spy chief, his defense minister, his minister of justice. So how the international community was sort of made to believe that he was a born again democrat, even though he had just conducted a military coup against his own president, and had been in the same corrupt system for 40 plus years? I’m still puzzled by the naivete.”
But perhaps it was more than naivete.
“I think the West just wanted to believe Mnangagwa was legitimate so they could do business with Zimbabwe, which had been a pariah state for forty years. If they called it a stolen election, somebody would have to do something about it.”
Chamisa will challenge Mnangagwa again in presidential elections set for July 2023, just one year from now. In parliamentary races this past March, the new opposition party he has formed now, the Citizens Coalition for Change, won a resounding 19 of 28 seats in the national assembly even as ZANU-PF engaged in its same old tricks. Whether he can translate those gains into a victory for the presidency remains to be seen.
“I’ve filmed and worked in Zimbabwe since 2009,” Nielsson told me, “and I think right now it’s the worst situation I’ve ever experienced on all levels: financially, in terms of human rights abuses, political suppression—worse even than under Mugabe. It’s just stunning. I think the Mnangagwa government is so threatened now by Chamisa and the popularity of the opposition in general that they are just arresting people all over the place. I honestly haven’t seen the situation this bad ever.”
Chamisa has embarked on a massive voter registration campaign in the rural parts of the country, engaging young people who have otherwise been apathetic and apolitical, given the country’s long history of stolen elections. That effort has been highly successful….and therefore threatening to the Mnangagwa regime. Nielsson reports that Chamisa is more popular than ever, with the Gallup polls showing him winning in a landslide in 2023 if the election isn’t rigged.
A big if.
“Naturally ZANU-PF is trying to do everything it can to get him off the playing field,” she said. “It shut down the offices where eighteen-year-olds go to get the ID cards necessary to register to vote, as well as the ZEC registration offices themselves in the regions where Chamisa was holding voter registration campaigns.” It has also appointed a new chairperson for the electoral commission who is the daughter of Mnangagwa’s former vice president Kembo Mohadi, in violation of the constitution, which ZANU-PF wants to amend to make 50 the minimum age to run for president. (Chamisa is 45.) In a nation roiled with famine, ZANU-PF also continues to leverage food aid, so that citizens must present proof of ZANU-PF party membership in order to get a bag of corn or seed or cooking oil.
But most of the regime’s actions are far more violent.
ZANU-PF has jailed dissidents and kidnapped and murdered opposition leaders, particularly in those rural areas that are its traditional stronghold, and where Chamisa is gaining strength. (One regional chairperson who had complained too loudly about ZANU-PF abuses was abducted by state security agents in an unmarked car and later found dismembered, with her intestines in a plastic bag.) There were two assassination attempts on Chamisa himself just this past October, prompting a massive grass roots fundraising campaign in the Zimbabwean diaspora to buy him a bulletproof car.
“They just don’t care,” Nielsson says. “There’s this sense of entitlement and impunity which I’ve never seen anywhere else. You couldn’t write this, because it would look like really bad kind of B-movie about an African dictator.”
THE THIN VENEER
The prognosis, then, for Chamisa’s chances in 2023 is not very good, despite his popularity, so long as Mnangagwa controls the electoral process. Nielsson believes that without robust oversight from international observers—far more robust than in 2018—ZANU-PF will simply steal the presidency again. After all, they have 43 years of practice.
“In 2018 there were election observers present on the ground from about 40 different nations, including the EU and the US, with former presidents and ambassadors and all kinds of people, and they did a lousy job.” And having feckless international observers is worse than not having them at all, because their complicity helps legitimize and cover up the theft, as evidenced by the largely credulous reaction of the Western media in 2018.
But therein lies one possible point of vulnerability: Mnangagwa’s desire for credibility in the global community—what Nielsson calls “the thin veneer of democracy”—which is the only reason ZANU-PF has allowed outside monitors in the past. When those monitors act as lackeys for Mnangagwa, he gets the stamp of approval he craves. But if that team consists instead of forceful and bold observers who call out fraud and corruption, there is a chance for a free and fair election to be forced upon the regime.
The other promising avenue, Nielsson notes, is economic pressure, as Zimbabwe is in much more dire financial straits than in 2018, making it far more susceptible to Western leverage. “The US has actually been a lot tougher on Mnangagwa than the EU or UK.”
But she believes even that will not be enough. “I think the only chance for a fair election in ‘23 is if they get rid of the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission altogether and there’s an international body that takes over and actually runs the election.”
She also believes that waiting for voting to begin before calling out irregularities is doomed to fail. “The opposition need to stop the election right now because the preconditions for a free and fair election are not there. There’s no official voters’ roll. The media landscape is completely biased. The ballots are being printed on state printers, and the opposition isn’t allowed access to them, or told how many are being printed, or where they are stored. The international community should be able to say, even from the start, it’s not free and fair, and it will never be free and fair, and then put on pressure financially, because half of the country is living on food aid at the moment.”
“But it doesn’t help to fly in three weeks before the election and have a lot of garden parties. ZANU-PF is too smart for that. They’ve been rigging elections since 1980.”
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
After a lengthy bureaucratic delay that served ZANU-PF’s interests, President has recently been banned by the Mnangagwa government on the grounds of “inciting public violence and undermining state security”—two reliable autocratic go-to’s. (Nielsson’s previous film, Democrats, from 2015, about the writing of a new democratic constitution for Zimbabwe, had previously been banned as well.)
To that end, also underway is a public relations campaign to get President in front of influential eyes in the US, Britain, and Europe.
“Basically, we’re trying to screen the film now in the run-up to ‘23 and try to engage with the EU, the US Senate, everybody with an interest in maintaining a democratic Zimbabwe, to try to put some force on the observers next time, and insist on greater transparency, and also have a bunch who have more balls to call the correct shots. And hopefully the journalists will also stay the course, because in 2018 I just saw the whole circus jump on the next plane as soon as the election was over and something was happening in Somalia the next week or whatever.”
The short attention span of Western media is especially unfortunate when one considers the lessons that the Zimbabwean crisis holds at a time when representative democracy is imperiled worldwide.
Once upon a time Americans looked down our collective nose and snickered in snotty superiority at such electoral fiascos in the developing world. Now they are upon us here at home.
In Zimbabwe, all the classic trademarks of a rigged election in a corrupt, faux democracy were there: a ruthless political party with a chokehold on the electoral process; a compromised elections bureaucracy under that party’s thumb; a false claim of victory and deliberate misrepresentation of the vote count; a shameless attempt to spread disinformation; feckless international observers who equivocate in calling out the fix; and venal politicians willing to use violence to suppress dissent and intimidate the opposition.
It is chilling to observe how perfectly Mnangagwa’s attempt to hold on to power in Zimbabwe in 2018 presaged Trump’s attempt to do the same in the US two years later. And the GOP has made it clear that going forward it intends to emulate the Mnangagwa regime even more overtly, by controlling the key levers of the electoral process itself, just as ZANU-PF did with ZEC. Most disturbing of all is the way that the mainstream media accepted the ZANU-PF narrative, largely unquestioningly.
The question for Zimbabwe is whether it can overcome its decades of oppression and corruption, both from within and without, and at last install its first truly democratic regime….and whether it will get the assistance from the international community it needs to do so. As Nielsson says, “Either we’ll have the happy ending to the trilogy, and Chamisa will be in power, or the shit hits the fan and it’s important that we are there as witnesses to something that—I fear, to be honest—is actually gonna go really, really bad.”
For the US, the question is whether the American people, once so proud—sanctimonious, even—of the strength of our own taken-for-granted constitutional democracy, are going to go down the same grim road as the former Rhodesia.
An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in Consequence Forum in June. Thank you Matthew Krajniak, Katherine Hollander, Peter Brown, and Alexandra Marshall.
Diligent copy editing, as always, by the intrepid Gina Patacca.
Photo: Pro-democracy candidate Nelson Chamisa greets supporters with his party’s trademark “open palm” gesture, on the campaign trail in Zimbabwe, 2018.