Zimbabwe, the Abuja Agreement and Commonwealth Principles: Compliance or Disregard?



The government of Zimbabwe has often asserted that the economic, social and political problems currently plaguing the country are rooted in land redistribution. The Government further claims that the reason that these problems have attracted an unprecedented amount of regional and international attention is that the Government’s land reform programme has been viewed unfavourably by Britain and its fellow Western nations, white farmers in Zimbabwe and the opposition political party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which is perceived as an extension of these white interests. It is however the Human Rights Forum’s contention that while the issue of land has always been, and is, a very critical issue requiring urgent attention, it is debatable as to whether the land issue is at the core of the current Zimbabwean crisis or whether it is in fact a crisis arising out of misgovernance, mismanagement of the economy and a political struggle to retain power; all masqueraded as a campaign for land reform.

“Land is at the core of the crisis in Zimbabwe and cannot be separated from other issues of concern to the Commonwealth, such as the rule of law, respect for human rights, democracy and the economy. A programme of land reform is, therefore, crucial to the resolution of the problem.” The Abuja Agreement indicated land as being at the core of the Zimbabwe crisis. It however went on to stress that to consider misgovernance, human rights violations, decline of democracy, unsustainable social and economic development as peripheral matters to the land issue is clearly not within the spirit of the Commonwealth as espoused in the Harare Commonwealth Declaration.

It is regrettable that the land issue has been used to divert attention away from economic decline and a general onslaught on civil and political rights, factors that are not causatively linked with the need to redress land imbalances. The consequence of the crisis on the enjoyment of economic and social rights has also been severe. The economic crisis has shrouded Zimbabwe since late 1997 predating the start of the Fast Track Land Reform Programme by at least two years. The high levels of political violence commonly reported throughout the country, since March 2000, by no means have their root in the need for land reform but conversely were closely associated with elections and mass demonstrations.

Since the signing of the Abuja Agreement violence on commercial farms has scaled down. In addition the massive displacement of commercial farm workers is ongoing although it has received little government attention. Farm workers continue to be victims of gross human rights violations. Additionally, there has certainly been no significant reduction in the prevalence of gross human rights abuses generally. Politically motivated violence has continued countrywide and there does not appear to be any sincere efforts by the government to guarantee “the liberty of the individual, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief, and their inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes”.

The violation of basic human freedoms in the past two years, predominantly through political violence, is in violation of the Abuja Agreement and Commonwealth principles. The Zimbabwe government has failed to take firm action against violence and intimidation as it had pledged. High levels of inter-party political violence have been recorded throughout the period from the signing of the Abuja Agreement to date. Such violence, while prevailing throughout, has intensified at times of elections having an inherent effect of constraining the electorate’s ability to exercise the right to vote without fear. Gross human rights violations perpetrated by uniformed state agents continue to be reported. These violations appear to be taking place with government acquiescence and are being carried out by an ostensibly partisan police force.


The Abuja Agreement on Zimbabwe, signed in Abuja, Nigeria on 6 September 2001, was a result of negotiations headed by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). Foreign Affairs Minister Stan Mudenge led the Zimbabwean delegation to the negotiations. President Robert Mugabe agreed to the terms of the Agreement, however the objectivity with which the Abuja Agreement would be enforced remained questionable. The fact that the President felt the need to consult, not only government but also the ruling party, ZANU PF, as to whether or not to implement the Agreement showed the politicised nature that land reform had taken. Upon his return to the country following the signing of the Abuja Agreement, President Mugabe announced that he would “have to go to Cabinet and the party but he did not see these two authorities rejecting it.” On 17 September 2001 the party did endorse the document with the Politburo stressing “the need for urgency in implementing the Agreement if the momentum created by Abuja was to be sustained.”

The major thrust of the Abuja Agreement was the land issue, placing this at the “core of the crisis in Zimbabwe”. Other aspects of the crisis, such as the breakdown in the rule of law, disregard for human rights and the absence of democratic principles were mentioned as being further “implications” of the crisis. This wording of the Abuja Agreement resulted in government focusing solely on the land issue and disregarding other matters of concern addressed by the Abuja Agreement. Subsequent perceptions of the crisis in Zimbabwe, particularly within Africa, have been tainted by this patently erroneous conception.

On 15 March 2002, the Commonwealth Observer Group released an adverse report on the Presidential Election. The report noted that high levels of political violence, media restrictions and limitations on voter education marred the elections. The Commonwealth Observer Group concluded “the conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors in the 2002 Presidential election”. The Commonwealth Marlborough House Statement of 19 March 2002 suspended Zimbabwe from the Councils of the Commonwealth for one year, subject to review in March 2003. The statement was mainly founded on the findings of the Commonwealth Observer Group and their recommendations. Thus the admonition of the Marlborough House Statement was similar to that of the Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group whose recommendations included the following:

  • Cessation to the systematic use of violence in political campaigns.
  • Clear separation of party and state in Zimbabwe and for there to be a proscription on the use of state resources for party political activity.
  • Government and law enforcement agencies should strictly enforce the law in respect to all acts of political violence.
  • The provisions of the Public Order and Security Act which impede freedoms of association and movement should be repealed

Six months after the initial suspension of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Mid-Term Review took place in Nigeria on 23 September 2002. President Robert Mugabe declined his invitation to the meeting that was attended by the heads of government of Nigeria, South Africa and Australia. The Zimbabwe Mid-Term Review Statement noted with disappointment Zimbabwe’s seeming reluctance to dialogue with the Commonwealth. It however, decided to continue monitoring Zimbabwe’s compliance with the recommendations of the Marlborough House Statement over the ensuing six months.

In mid-March 2003, Zimbabwe’s suspension from the Councils of the Commonwealth was extended until December 2003. The statement issued by the Commonwealth Secretary General, Don McKinnon, on this occasion urged the Zimbabwe government to engage the UNDP on the issue of land reform as had been agreed in terms of the Abuja Agreement. In addition the statement urged the government of Zimbabwe to “honour its undertaking to other regional leaders on issues of concern”.

Unfolding of violence since the Abuja Agreement

Expectations that farm invasions would cease were high in September 2001 following the signing of the Abuja Agreement. Government pledged to halt farm invasions and further promised to adhere to the rule of law and respect human rights standards which it asserted was already provided for by the country’s Constitution and laws by which the government operated. Yet with such explicit support for Abuja, government’s practical commitment was brought into question by the lack of a corresponding reduction in the human rights violations prevailing as a result of politically motivated violence. Concomitantly farm invasions continued in the immediate period following the signing of the Abuja Agreement. These were accompanied by the extensive displacement of farm workers, with widespread assault and torture of farm workers also being reported.

Politically motivated violence continued throughout October and November 2001 with attacks on civil servants, whose support of the ruling party was deemed questionable, intensifying. Teachers were reported as having been particularly targeted. Reminiscent of common practices in the run up to the June 2000 Parliamentary elections, reports began to surface of campaign bases for militia (also known as torture centres) being set up across the country. This phenomenon signalled the increase in levels of violence across the country.

A concern underlying prevailing events was the apparent partisan nature of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP). While appearing vigilant in investigation and arrests when the alleged perpetrators were opposition party members or supporters, evidence suggested that the ZRP was lethargic in its pursuit of justice when the alleged perpetrators were members or supporters of the ruling party ZANU PF or members of ZNLWVA. This occurrence was later noted by the Commonwealth Observer Group in its report on the Presidential Election. The report concluded that “very often Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and other security forces did not take action to investigate reported cases of violence and intimidation, especially against known or suspected supporters of the MDC.” A case in point in November 2001 was the swift arrest of 14 MDC members who were arrested for the murder of Bulawayo war veteran’s chairman, Cain Nkala including two who were in Harare at the time of the murder. Davis Mtetwa and Steven Chasara were arrested and severely tortured before they were released without being charged for the alleged offence. In contrast, no arrests were reported in connection with the murder of Kufa Rukara in Gokwe. This is a trend that has been common in the politically motivated murders documented by the Human Rights Forum.

As the campaign for the Presidential Election gained momentum in late December 2001, it was reported that youths who had graduated from the Border Gezi National Youth Service Training Centre in Mount Darwin were victimising and assaulting residents in Harare’s high-density suburbs. At the same time there were concerns that those that had benefited from the Clemency Order No 1 of 2000 were once again at the helm of utilisation of violence as a political tool. What followed was a violent campaign for the Presidency. The stakes in this election certainly appeared higher than in other elections before it, with violence levels reaching a peak and in January of 2002, 16 politically motivated murders were recorded, more than had been previously reported in any one month since the first politically motivated murder that was recorded in March 2000. High levels of political violence and intimidation of the electorate were evidenced in February and March 2002. Incidents of violence and intimidation were even recorded on the polling days of 9-11 March 2002.

President Robert Gabriel Mugabe of ZANU PF retained the Presidency with 1 685 212 votes, approximately 400 000 more than those of main opponent Morgan Tsvangirai. In spite of his loss, the large number of votes that Morgan Tsvangirai garnered in the elections led to a wave of retributive attacks targeting primarily MDC office bearers, those who had served as polling agents, and any individuals who were perceived as supporters of the MDC, whether or not this was actually the case.

In April and May 2002, with the election over, violence on the farms gained momentum, targeted at both farmers and farm workers. Resultant displacement of farm workers regrettably received little attention. Off the farms, in the communal areas, real and perceived supporters of the opposition were also reporting displacement from their homes as part of the recrimination for allegedly voting for the opposition candidate in the Presidential Elections.

The majority of human rights violations recorded pre and post the Presidential Election were not resultant of the land redistribution exercise. They were in fact a consequence of an exercise to retain and subsequently consolidate power by the ruling party, ZANU PF. Incidents of retaliatory violence by the opposition, MDC, were also recorded. There did not seem to be a concerted effort by government to put an end to such violence. In the months that followed politically motivated violence continued, in the absence of elections, and the economic crisis deepened. Farm evictions continued in earnest, reportedly under the auspices of ZANU PF militia and war veterans with as little as an hour’s notice for vacation given to farmers and farm workers. The process, reported widely in August and September 2002, was characterised by looting, intimidation and property damage. While evicted white commercial farmers perhaps had better prospects of finding alternative accommodation, farm workers, who had no savings and in most cases had resided on the farms for generations, had no alternative urban or rural homes to go to. Many farm workers essentially became internally displaced persons with unpredictable and irregular access to food and water, much less basic amenities such as schools, clinics and hospitals.

There did not, at this stage, appear to be any meaningful steps taken by government to address the plight of farm workers nor to restore the rule of law and ensure respect for human rights. Civil servants remained under attack for their perceived lack of loyalty to government and the ruling party. Accounts of involvement of uniformed state agents actively taking part in incidents of organised violence and torture continued to be recorded by the Human Rights Forum.

Allegations of politicisation of food aid surfaced in September 2002. It was asserted that, rather than being distributed on the basis of those most in need, it was being distributed irrespective of need, according to political affiliation and as a vote-buying tool. Reports recorded by the Human Rights Forum in September and October showed that food distribution had been politically manipulated to obtain votes from the electorate during the Rural District Council Elections and Insiza by-election respectively. Danish Human Rights Group – Physicians for Human Rights/ Denmark released a report in October 2002 entitled Voting ZANU PF For Food: Rural District and Insiza Elections which detailed these allegations. However it did not appear that the accused party was taking these allegations seriously. ZANU PF Secretary for Information and Publicity reportedly gave the following retort in denial of having any knowledge of the politicisation of distribution of food aid: “If you know who is selling mealie-meal at the party offices, please tell me. I need it and I would like to buy some.”

Rural District and Urban Council elections in September 2002 and a by-election in Insiza in the following month attracted an increase in political violence, a phenomenon consistent with other pre-election periods in Zimbabwe, particularly since the June 2000 Parliamentary Election. Incidents of opposition candidates withdrawing their candidature in the elections due to violence and intimidation were recorded. Reports later came in of retributive attacks targeted at opposition party candidates and supporters after the Rural District and Urban Council elections, as was similarly the case in the aftermath of the Insiza by-election. ZANU PF militia in Insiza allegedly intimidated opposition party supporters and demanded that they publicly condemn the MDC and join or rejoin ZANU PF.

As the year 2003 opened, political violence was once again on the increase with the forthcoming by-elections in two urban constituencies in Harare, Highfield and Kuwadzana, scheduled for 29 -30 March 2003. Politically motivated murders were recorded and organised violence and torture was rife. The torture of human rights lawyer, Gabriel Shumba and MDC MP for St Mary’s Job Sikhala was one of the more gruesome incidents that occurred in January 2003. Sikhala and Shumba, arrested along with Bishop Shumba, Taurayi Magaya and Charles Mutuma, were severely tortured. Means of torture included electrical torture with shocks being administered to their genitals and toes while their hands and feet were tied together.

Human rights violations at this stage and in the preceding four months had little or nothing to with farm invasions or the subsequent Fast Track Land Reform Programme. Political violence had remained prevalent throughout Zimbabwe since March 2000, surviving independently throughout and outliving the land redistribution exercise.

Between February and July 2003, it became more evident than before that the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) would be used to curtail Zimbabwean citizen’s Constitutional rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression. Restrictions were to be clearly revealed in the two mass demonstrations called for by the MDC that took place from 18 to 19 March and 2 to 6 June 2003 respectively, and the stay-away called for by the ZCTU from 23 to 25 April 2003. The stay-aways were declared illegal by government and the crack down on suspected organisers was severe. There was widespread use of torture by state agents following both these events as a means of investigating crimes that had been allegedly committed by supporters of the MDC during these two demonstrations. Other victims reported having been tortured in order to provide details with regards to the whereabouts of suspects or having been tortured into confessing to a crime they had not committed.

High incidence of torture by state agents was recorded in May and June 2003, although the government denied any knowledge of such activities. Yet it was plausible for victims to conclude that perpetrators that were dressed in army and police regalia were ZNA and ZRP personnel; a conclusion which seems to have been given merit by the victims’ transportation in police or army vehicles to places at which they were tortured or detention at police stations following arrests and torture by these individuals. Violence disguised as exercise of freedom of expression could not be condoned but neither could torture as a means of law enforcement or investigation. Several victims also alleged the presence and active involvement of the Minister of Youth Development, Gender and Employment Creation, Elliot Manyika, in their victimisation and torture, a clear sign of State acquiescence with the prevailing events.

Most recently, in July and August 2003, political violence has been documented in association with the Urban Council Elections scheduled for 30/31 August 2003. Violence has been targeted in particular at prospective candidates for the opposition and has been mainly aimed at preventing them from attending Nomination Courts and being duly registered as candidates in their wards, resulting in the uncontested nominees being duly declared winners in their respective wards.

This is extracted from a report compiled by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Froum


Don't be shellfish... Please SHAREShare on google
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

Like it? Share with your friends!

Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *