Leading Zimbabwe pastor warns elections may be rigged

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

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GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) — A prominent Zimbabwean activist voiced doubt Tuesday that upcoming elections — the first since Robert Mugabe's ouster — will be credible, as the new president's commitment to basic rights was still unclear.

Evan Mawarire, a pastor who became the face of anti-Mugabe demonstrations last year, told AFP that Zimbabwe's legacy of ballot rigging and political repression would take time to shed.

"It's very difficult for me right now to believe that elections will be free, fair and credible because the history says otherwise", Mawarire said on the sidelines of the Geneva human rights summit, referring to Mugabe's tyrannical 37-year rule.

"What they have done for 38 years is very different from what they are proposing they are going to do now".

Zimbabwe's new President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-standing Mugabe ally, has vowed that elections due by July will be credible and promised to honour the legacy of opposition stalwart Morgan Tsvangirai who died after a battle with cancer last week.

But Mawarire cautioned that while Mnangagwa has been sending the right messages on the economy since the military installed him as Mugabe's replacement last year, the new president's stand on fundamental human rights was unknown.

"The message that has been top of his agenda is that Zimbabwe is open for business," Mawarire said, noting Mnangagwa's speech to global financial elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.

But, he added, there are "a lot of questions about structural changes when it comes to the law, the rule of law, when it comes to democracy, human rights. They have said a lot about business but little about the freedom of people".

The pastor said those currently in power were "directly involved in suppressing and subverting the will of the people in 2008", a reference to the vote that saw Tsvangirai narrowly beat Mugabe in the first round before pulling out of the run-off following violence.

Before Mugabe was removed, Mawarire had been accused of attempting to violently overthrow his government after he posted an internet video of himself wearing the national flag and lamenting Zimbabwe's troubles.

The video inspired the ThisFlag movement that led mass protests across the country.

After spending 17 months in jail, he was acquitted of the offences in November, a week after Mugabe's ouster.

Mawarire's rise to national prominence triggered speculation that he might enter the political fray.

But the 40-year-old pastor told AFP that July was too soon to mount a presidential bid, even if running for office in Zimbabwe at some point was "very much on (his) agenda".

Helping people organise and register to vote is "a much more beneficial and important role to play" at this point, he said.

"For now, I think it is important for me to remain working on the ground with citizens."

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