Features | A torturous wait

Zimbabwe is in turmoil. The delayed release of presidential election results has spread fears that incumbent Robert Mugabe, a dictator who has ruled the country for 28 years of corruption and economic collapse, rigged the vote or is hiding his loss. Although opposition supporters celebrated victory last week after challenger Morgan Tsvangirai’s party took control of parliament, Mugabe’s Zanu P-F party remains confident that the dictator will win in a possible runoff vote.

Exiled Zimbabwean lawyer Gabriel Shumba documents human rights violations in the country and tries to make perpetrators accountable through his work with the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF), a South African organization dedicated to effecting political change in Zimbabwe. To lobby for political support from Canada, Shumba collaborates with Rights&Democracy, an organization created by the Canadian parliament in 1988 to support human rights advocates and proponents of democracy.

Shumba spoke with The Daily about his experience as a torture victim, Zimbabwe’s economic situation, and his efforts to bolster political support during his trip to Canada.

The McGill Daily: How is Rights&Democracy helping to bolster the mandate of the ZEF, and who have you been lobbying for support during your trip to Canada?

Gabriel Shumba: Many countries in Africa take their cue and leadership from South Africa, so if South Africa stops supporting Mugabe today, I’m sure you’ll find that Botswana, Zambia, Ghana, and other countries will follow suit. While millions of Zimbabweans continue to starve and leave their country, while we continue to suffer human rights abuses, it is in part attributable to South Africa’s continued support of Mugabe. They have been protecting Mugabe. The Human Rights Council, the Commonwealth Forum, and other forums, have refused to accept that Mugabe [should face] scrutiny. So if Canada could persuade South Africa and other countries in the region to stop shielding Mugabe, then perhaps we might see a change in terms of governance and the human rights regime that we have in the country.

I also wanted to request that they intervene, and request that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – and the African Union and other observers observing this election – should come out cleanly, and declare the elections stolen if they are stolen. If the conditions are not conducive to free and fair elections, they should pronounce them as such…. As we speak today, the SADC has already declared the elections are a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people, and are free. But everybody, I think, knows that the pre-electoral environment was not conducive to free and fair elections.

So we wanted to appeal to the Canadian government to assist us – when the conditions become possible, dependent on how the elections turn out – to assist us to rebuild institutions that have been destroyed: an independent judiciary, security institutions like the army, the police. We need Canada’s input in helping us get those institutions back to serve the people impartially, without showing allegiance to the president of the country or the party in power. Those institutions have been made partisan by Robert Mugabe, so it is very difficult for them to serve the people.

At present, the scenarMD:io in Zimbabwe is that civil society has been divided between pro-opposition and pro-ruling party. That is very dangerous. We don’t need a civil society organizing itself as either opposition or ruling party; we need our civil society to stand unbiased, to stand up to abuses, even if they are committed by a new government. If the MDC [Morgan Tsvangirai’s party] wins the elections, we still need civil society organizations to scrutinize activities of any government.

MD: You have been a victim of torture under the Mugabe regime for providing legal counsel to a member of the MDC. How difficult is it for Zimbabweans to support the opposition when faced with intimidation and violence?

GS: It is very risky to be an opposition supporter in Zimbabwe. It may mean the difference between life and death. The images that jolted the world on March 11, 2007, when senior opposition leaders were tortured in police cars, shows how dangerous a job it is to be an opposition activist in Zimbabwe. I should mention, however, that torture and abuse is not limited to the opposition. It has also been extended to, for example, myself, [and other] human rights defenders, who have dared dissent from the ruling party line.

When I was tortured I was not tortured because I was an opposition member or supporter, but because I was representing a opposition member of parliament, who is with the MDC…. It is very risky to belong to the opposition or engage in any kind of activity that seeks to expose the democracy deficit in the country.

MD: What impact do Zimbabwean refugees have on the political situation in Zimbabwe if they are disenfranchised [from being allowed to vote]?

GS: The impact [will] to lead us to conclude that this election, even if it is won by the opposition, is not a true reflection of the will of the Zimbabwean people as a whole, because a majority has been silenced. The election itself can’t be called legitimate in that sense. It excludes a bulk of those who are of voting age. As you know, there are 5.6 million registered voters in the country, so if 4 million are excluded, it’s not a reflection of the will of the Zimbabwean people.

The media has also not been reporting on activities of the opposition in balanced manner. It mainly condemns and castigates the opposition. It is state-controlled. We don’t have an independent media in Zimbabwe…. It is very shocking that the SADC declared [last week] that the whole process is free and is an expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people. What is more worrying is that they have already left the country after making this statement, when they should be monitoring the post-electoral environment.

They know the situation is permissive for rigging and is likely to explode into violence. I guess that’s why they are running away.

MD: Though the Zimbabwean economy has been in decline for over a decade, the current economic crisis is unprecedented. Do you think this will be the final push to remove Mugabe’s grip on power? Will 2008 be a year of change?

GS: I think the economy shouldn’t be over-emphasized…. The economy has been going down for quite some time now and people have been starving since 2000.

But I think the main contributor [to Mugabe’s declining support] is the fact that people are abused in terms of their human rights. I am not talking about torture or rape only of opposition supporters, but the right to education – all the other basic freedoms and necessities, like the right to food.

We don’t even have petrol or cooking oil in the country. The little petrol that comes into the country is not in the garages, it is actually given to the government departments so they can use state vehicles to campaign. The opposition has actually been paralysed in terms of mobility around the country because they have to send people to South Africa and other neighbouring countries to buy petrol in drums.

So I think the tilting factor is the general human rights situation, rather than the economy, even though many people have been saying the economy is likely to be the decisive factor.

MD: If Mugabe is ousted from power, will you feel safe enough to return to your homeland?

GS: Because of the nature of the work I am doing – that I have been collecting evidence against perpetrators, not only with regards to my torture but with regards to the torture of many others – it might be risky and premature to go back to Zimbabwe, at least for the time being…. I should also mention that the other difficulty is that I am an embodiment of the torture that many Zimbabweans have been suffering, in the sense that I could actually appear in court as a witness

Since I am also part of the evidence and a potential witness, I might be banned if I decide to go back when the system is not yet stabilized.

– compiled by Vanessa Kortekaas