The problem of political trust in Zimbabwe
By Tony Reeler
The events of the past week demonstrate something with absolute clarity: the state and the government (neither are distinct any longer) is unable to trust its citizens. In fact it has been unable to do so since at least 1999, and the Food Riots. The social compact between citizen and state dissolved two decades ago, and this is not trivial when the government calls for national unity. The call for unity can only occur when the citizens trust the state and the state trusts the citizens. In the absence of this reciprocal relationship, the cry for unity is empty.
However, the past week is not unique in the fostering of mistrust. Those who saw all the film of police attacking ordinary citizens, for no other reason it would appear than they needed to, understand the coercive power of the state, and are in no doubt that the government and the state does not trust its citizens to assemble and listen to a mere speech. There were no riotous mobs, and the tiny group that was brave enough to come to a public event, albeit in town, posed no threat to the state. Nor did those who were merely in the vicinity going about their (non-political) business. All were indiscriminately assaulted, with many seriously injured.
To this can be added the torture – and this word is wholly appropriate – of a well-known lawyer trying to take food to his colleague in a police station. Torture is the only word than can be used to describe a vicious beating taking place in a police station: this falls clearly within the definition of the UN Convention: deliberate infliction of severe pain, done by a state agent, and in order to intimidate or punish.
What threat did providing a person with lunch pose to the public order? And how do we describe the vicious beatings of ordinary citizens last week and what threat did they pose?
All of this takes place against the background of formal discussions between the European Community and the Zimbabwe government to re-establish the conditions for the resumption of assistance to the country. One can only imagine that the content of those discussions will be completely overturned by the reality of the commitment by the state and government to rule of law, human rights and good governance.
There is a deeper problem to be unravelled in our country in all its misery, and this is that the citizenry will not answer the call for unity to solve our common problems. They will not, quite simply, because there is not trust left in either the state or the government, and this commodity is the critical ingredient for any common problem solving. This is not mere assertion, but backed up the evidence.
Firstly, as RAU has shown in recent research, political trust in the government had eroded substantially by 1999. The hardship experienced through ESAP, and the failure by the government to deliver the kinds of public goods and services expected by citizens meant that the majority of citizens had lost faith on the government. Small wonder that the NCA and the MDC could so rapidly be appealing to them. The government, through the state, demonstrated very quickly that it had lost trust in the citizens, and there is little need to detail the violent elections, Operation Murambatsvina, and a myriad other examples. The events of last week are merely another example of the lack of trust.
Secondly, the research by RAU demonstrates very clearly that the government (and the state) rely on only those that express open allegiance to it: all other others are enemies, “sellouts”, and a wide variety of derogatory terms. Political trust by citizens is restricted almost completely to those citizens who are willing to say that they support ZANU-PF. It is narrower than the conventional wisdom that suggests that ZANU-PF is rural and the MDC Alliance is urban: there are huge numbers of citizens that have lost faith in political parties and government. For nearly two decades citizens. It is even the case that supporters of ZANU-PF mostly do not even believe that the government is corrupt!
This toxic brew of state failure to deliver public goods and services, coercion and violence, and corruption, both pure corruption as well as patronage and clientilism, is very simply the reason why the citizens do not trust the state. The government, and now the captured state, do not trust the citizens for exactly the same reasons, their accountability for all this malfeasance in governance.
Thirdly, it is obvious that you cannot create trust through coercion. If you fail to deliver the kinds of public goods and services that people expect from their government, and actually oversee them getting poorer by the year, then coercion is extremely unlikely to get them to respond to calls for unity. In fact, it can only deepen the rift between citizens and state.
This rift is not helped by the silence of the independent commissions, the NPRC and the ZHRC. Trust in the state is supposed to be facilitated by these Commissions: this is the reason for their existence under the Constitution, to provide institutions to call the state to accountability and give citizens’ confidence that the state and the government cannot act without restraint and accountability. The silence by these two bodies in the wake of the irrefutable evidence of the recent excessive use of force is shameful at the least, but worse suggests that they have little understanding of their critical role in creating trust in the state.
When the state (and the government) does not trust its citizens, when the citizens do not trust the state, and when the citizens probably do not even trust political parties, where can the country go? This is the deepest question that we citizens must face, for it will determine how we get out of this vicious cycle of violence and increasing deprivation. This is no unique problem, and faced by many countries. Sudan has suggested a moratorium on elections and power sharing between the military and civil society. The Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations have made a largely similar call, but few have read their statement carefully enough to see that this a call for another way out. The Platform for Concerned Citizens has repeatedly called for a National Transition Authority, but few have seen this as sensible until the current impasse.
However, until we realise that the citizen has no political trust, and that coercion and violence will increase the lack of trust, we are going nowhere. When everyone accepts that the government and the state will remain “illegitimate” until the political powers and the citizens have mutual trust, and accepts that a process to create this trust is fundamental to deep change, we are going nowhere, especially if we continue to beat ordinary citizens and lawyers just trying to their jobs.
Tony Reeler is a Zimbabwean social and political commentator