LEGEND has it that in 2008 after losing the first round of elections, then Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe sanctioned what was called “Operation wavotera papi” (meaning who have you voted for). The narrative is that after Morgan Tswangirai beat Mugabe’s Zanu-PF in the first round of elections that year, a rerun was called between the two front runners and the sitting president could not afford to be humiliated by a man he had brutalized for so many years. To secure his victory, Mugabe ordered soldiers to patrol polling stations during the election rerun. The soldiers ordered voters not to leave after casting their votes until the counting was done. Old farmers and some villagers who walked long distances were made to wait under some tree shades. If it was discovered that Zanu-PF lost to MDC at a given polling station, the soldiers would give a severe beating to the electorate, while asking them “wavotera papi?”.

There are various versions of this story and the above is one of them. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF unleashed a powerful intimidation campaign to defeat the opposition. What they did was that, in rural areas they used headmen and chiefs to mobilise voters. So, the traditional leaders were commanded to go with their people to a polling station to vote, line by line. The soldiers would tell the villagers that ‘we will know who you have voted for because we have cameras in the polling booth. So, if we lose at this polling station, we will know who voted against Mugabe and Zanu-PF. At that time, many rural people had been empowered with land through the resettlement programme, and the soldiers were saying ‘if we discover that you voted against the ruling party, we will take away your land’. So, the people were threatened that ‘if the ruling party loses, I will lose my land’. And of course the army commanders or the army chiefs were deployed in provinces to coordinate this operation and intimidation campaign tactic.

That is not all. The soldiers also launched a manhunt for Tswangirai’s MDC activists who were resisting this operation. The state operatives pursued members of the MDC structures and beat them up. They made it practically impossible for the opposition to campaign. Where they found campaign posters, they removed or burnt them down. All this was done to secure and protect a forced election victory for president Mugabe. A lot of people were killed, and this forced Tswangirai, the biggest opposition leader to withdraw from the election rerun, after getting a good share of the beating himself.

Zambia is at the verge of witnessing this. The level or desperation to win the August 2021 elections, and at the rate they are going, we don’t see anything that can stop our ruling party from deploying this intimidation tactic. Already, they are telling Zambians in the rural areas that the government will know if they do not vote for the PF. They are telling them that if that happens, the bicycles and other gifts they are getting will be taken away from them. In some parts of this continent, they call this democracy – intimidating voters, silencing the opposition and eliminating competitors from the race.

Interestingly, the biggest opposition leader in Zambia has already identified this tactic from the ruling PF. UPND president Hakainde Hichilema has lamented that the ruling party is making it difficult for the opposition to exist because apart from killing opponents, even their businesses are not spared. He wonders why the party in power would be so desperate to the extent of eliminating opponents, when they claim to be popular.

Hakainde HICHILEMA: “Being in the opposition is difficult. The party in government makes it difficult for the opposition to exist, they don’t want the opposition. They are busy arresting opposition members, they are killing opposition members. Unfortunately, the ruling party believes that there should be no opposition, and the strongest largest opposition UPND is suffering a lot. Sometimes they target our members and their businesses are affected. You have heard some of them are crying that my business is suffering. It is not supposed to be like that. Unfortunately, that is how it is and along the way, some get tired and some begin to fear. So a lot of people are intimidated. At times, we are having intra party elections in the bush just to run away from the ruling party and the police, so that they should not arrest us.

Doesn’t this sound like a path to operation wavotera papi? The Patriotic Front is so scared to face the opposition in the coming elections. They don’t want anyone to be given a fair chance of challenging the sitting President. Why would a mature democracy allow such a situation where the opposition are prevented from campaigning, from meeting freely and mobilising supporters?

We find it baffling that under this government, simple efforts to exercise basic democratic rights are often met with brutal resistance, but when consequences of their actions arise, they find someone else to blame. Why they continue to use draconian tactics to tackle simple acts such as peaceful protests or solidarity marches, can only be attributed to the system under which they operate. A system that is presided over by scared politicians, individuals who are intolerant of criticism and obsessed with power.

But those who hold power today must know that soon, that power may be taken away. No one can and should be allowed to resist the outcome of a democratic process. Term limits regulate leadership succession. They are meant to counteract leaders’ temptation to overstay their welcome. Regular transfers of power give citizens hope that new policies, programmes and approaches will be adopted by the new leadership. The benefits of frequent power transfers is that they keep the incumbents on their toes because there’s a real chance they can be removed from power if they fail to govern properly. Our leaders must not feel so comfortable and start treating the electorate like beggars. Most importantly, they must not treat opposition leaders like they are refugees who have no right to seek public office.