Christopher Farai Charamba: THE INTERVIEW
ON Tuesday a scheduled meeting between the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and political parties failed to take place after ZEC accused the parties of engaging in bad faith. The following day opposition political parties under NERA demonstrated and delivered a petition to ZEC. The Herald’s Christopher Charamba (CC) spoke to ZEC chairperson Justice Rita Makarau (RM) to get a picture of the state of affairs between ZEC and political parties and how far the commission has gone in terms of preparing for the 2018 elections.
CC: Justice Makarau, you were supposed to have a meeting with the political parties on Tuesday, but that meeting did not end up taking place. What transpired and why was the meeting called off?
RM: We had scheduled a meeting with political parties on Tuesday. This was a standing meeting with them that is supposed to go on periodically. We had failed to do it in February due to circumstances beyond our control and scheduled this one for March.
Just before the meeting we started getting media reports that the NERA formation of political parties believed that we wanted to use that platform to intimidate them, as part of the State machinery, against them holding a demonstration which they had organised for the following day. There were also other press reports attacking the integrity of ZEC.
We sat back and reflected and thought that the platform that we had created with the political parties was not working for the purpose which we had had set it up for. We had genuinely believed that with political parties there, there would be less bashing of ZEC in the sense that they would understand where we were coming from because we would be dialoguing with them.
If there are issues we would bring them to the table. But we realised that notwithstanding the engagement, the opposition political parties mainly, were still bent on bashing ZEC. Whether we did the right thing or the wrong thing they would still bash us.
So we sat back and reflected and asked is there any need for us to continue with the engagement in this particular form and this particular forum? We decided as ZEC that maybe we need to speak to the political parties and say do we need to go back to the drawing board and re-engage and come up with different terms of engagement.
That’s why we stopped the meeting on Tuesday to go back to the drawing board and find out whether the forum is still serving the same purpose that we had set it up for. As ZEC we believe it was not adding any value to our operations and to the political process in general.
It looks like that it was business as usual for them to just bash ZEC whenever you can. And so we thought if they were going to bash us with or without the engagement then maybe the engagement is not useful at this level and in this format.
CC: On Tuesday you made comments stating the political parties were acting in bad faith and that they were abusing ZEC. What exactly did you mean when you said they were abusing ZEC?
RM: That’s the bashing that I was speaking of. Attacking us unjustifiably even when there is no basis for the attack. We had set up regular meetings with them then they want to say it is an intimidation platform.
But this is a meeting we had agreed with them and we thought we were moving forward together. When it suits them though, they then turn what we are doing to suit their purpose and we thought that was not acting in good faith at all.
CC: Is this not part of their freedom of expression as political parties?
RM: Yes, it is and we have said yes they can criticise us. But the criticism has to be fair and balanced. Fair in the sense that it must be based on some allegation. What is it that we had done to show that we wanted to intimidate them?
This was a regular meeting, the agenda had been set and there was nothing on the agenda to suggest that we were going to intimidate them at all. We were going to deal with matters arising from previous meetings and this had nothing to do with their planned demonstration.
The other issue I wanted to refer is that together with the press reports that we were going to intimidate NERA from participating in the demonstrations, there was also another article saying that ZEC had already started registering voters; it is registering only in Zanu-PF strongholds and it is excluding all people under the age of 25.
In the same platform everybody knows that we have not started voter registration at all. We are in the process of acquiring BVR kits. The same people will, however, go behind our back and say that we have started voter registration and we are registering in a way that discriminates against them. That to us is abuse and abusing our good faith.
They are not dealing with us in good faith in the sense that we had agreed on a position that we will all start voter registration together, then they go out saying ZEC has already started doing it. That is the betrayal that I was referring to.
CC: NERA held a demonstration and I believe they delivered a petition to ZEC, how are you dealing with the petition?
RM: Yes, we acknowledge receipt of that petition, it was received by Mrs Chigwamba in my absence. She has since given me a copy of the petition, we have circulated it to all commissioners for their information and we have since formally responded to that petition.
If you have had sight of the petition you will notice that it is making two demands. The first demand is that ZEC be disbanded forthwith. The second demand is that AU, Sadc and UN must immediately set up an elections management body that will take over ZEC’s responsibilities.
Those are not issues that should come to ZEC ordinarily because we have no powers to meet any of those demands. We can’t disband ourselves obviously. We have been appointed and the person who appointed us would have to do that.
There is a process for our removal from office and it does not lie in our hands. Secondly, asking AU, UN and Sadc to come in and set up a body that will take over constitutional responsibilities of ZEC, again that is outside ZEC’s mandate.
We can’t meet that demand; we believe it will have to be addressed to the relevant authorities whoever they may be. So to us we are saying there are these demands on the table, but in the meantime we remain the constitutionally appointed commission to run elections in Zimbabwe. It’s going to be business as usual.
CC: Speaking on that issue that opposition political parties have demanded that ZEC be disbanded, they say they have lost faith in ZEC and that it is a captured institution. How would you respond to these sentiments?
RM: We are not a captured institution, we become to them a captured institution if we do not agree with their demands. We have been working very well with political parties right up to now, and we have letters where they have written to us commending the way that we have been relating to them.
So it’s not something that will faze us unduly that they allege that we are a captured institution, it’s something we believe is entirely their own opinion. We will continue to discharge our mandate independently as we possibly can.
We are independent, we have always been independent but because I believe opposition parties have got an agenda to portray us as not independent our saying we are independent will not stop them, so be it.
CC: With regards to ZEC’s duties and the 2018 harmonised elections coming up, voter registration is supposed to start. What is the current situation regarding the biometric voter registration systems?
RM: We have already agreed for 2018 all voters will be registered biometrically, we will go the way of biometric voter registration and we have not gone back on that position. We have also commenced the process of procuring the kits that will enable us to register voters biometrically.
Initially as you know the process was under the platform of the UNDP because they were sponsoring the procurement. We have since moved the platform now to the local platform which is the State Procurement Board (SPB) procurement process.
We have given the SPB all the necessary documentation of what we had done with the UNDP up to the stages where we were and what remains to be done. They are still doing their due diligence on that package and they are yet to come to us as to when we can take the next steps in terms of that process.
CC: Is there any indication as to when they will get back to you?
RM: Very soon, we sincerely hope very soon. We have impressed upon them the urgency of the matter which urgency I think is apparent to every Zimbabwean and we believe that they will come back to us very soon.
We are also keeping in mind our timelines that we gave out that by May/June we must have started voter registration. We must have started then if we are to meet our deadline which is November 2017 for completion of the exercise.
CC: So what is the Government’s role in this process? Are they simply providing the funding or are they taking control of the tender process as well?
RM: The Government is simply funding the process. We have been the procuring entity even under the UNDP platform we remained the procuring entity. Only the identity of the funder has changed from UNDP to Government. We remain the central player in this procurement process.
CC: Have you finished the tender process and have you decided on where the BVR kits will be purchased from?
RM: No, that is the process we are about to finalise now. Twelve companies did put in their bids, they were technically assessed and the top performing three were identified. We were at that stage when the SPB took over.
So, the next stage is for the SPB to tell us when we can invite those three performers to come into the country and demonstrate what their kits can do. Following that, we then make a choice on who the supplier should be based on what their kits can do on local terrain.
We might find that they may look nice in terms of pictures but when you take them to Mufakose High School, they will not be able to perform what we want them to do. So, we want to test them on the ground and only make a decision after testing them on the ground.
CC: You say voter registration should start in May/June is there enough time between now and then to test the kits, to secure the ones you want to uses and also for there to be voter education? There seems to be some misinformation on what BVR is about especially in the public domain. So is there enough time to properly educate the voters as well as test the kits before the process starts?
RM: Yes, there should be enough time and our voter education should be continuous once we hit the ground until we get to elections. People need to understand that even though you have registered using BVR kits you will not find those BVR kits inside the voting booth.
There has been that misconception that registering voters BVR means they are also going to vote BVR, whatever that means. It is biometric voter registration not biometric voting that we are going with.
Our voter education should start almost immediately but we didn’t want to start now before we know the identity of the supplier so that we can tell people that these are the kits that will come to you.
Because once we give them a picture of the kit and they see something different, it will reflect badly and in elections you don’t do that. So once we have secured the supplier and we know what the BVR kits look like then our voter education will start in earnest and it will be continuous right up to voting day.
CC: You spoke about submitting your documents to the SPB, it is my understanding that you have also presented a budget to Treasury. What has been the response from them?
RM: Very favourable, the responses have been very favourable so far. They understand that we need to procure these BVR kits and they have assured us that money will be made available.
We have also started preparing the budget for the proper elections and we shall be submitting that to treasury. We will be working with them on that very soon.
CC: Over various elections there has always been controversy around the voters’ roll and the availability and access to it. Once the registration process has finished, which you said you hope to be done with in November, what is the next step?
RM: The capturing or the registration of voters and the production of the draft voters’ roll will then be subjected to the people for inspection, objections and critique. We are hoping that between December and January people will be doing that. We will then clean it up and we are ready for elections in 2018 with a clean voter’s roll.
CC: On the issue of political parties we have a lot of political parties that seem to be sprouting as we move towards the 2018 elections. What exactly is the policy in terms of somebody starting and registering a political party for elections?
RM: There is no policy, there is no governing framework. Everybody in Zimbabwe is free to form a political party and they don’t even have to register with us. What they need to do is, come voting time and they want to sponsor a candidate, there are certain regulations they have to meet.
Like how do you sponsor a candidate, how many signatories must support that candidate for instance if it is a presidential candidate. You pay the fee, you give us your logo and it must be a logo that conforms with the law. That is the only time when the law kicks in when you are registering a candidate or when we go to the nomination court.
As for now, you and I can form a political party and we don’t even have to register it with anybody. We can call ourselves a political party.
CC: Is this a situation or position that you feel is fair to the people of Zimbabwe or fair in terms of electoral practises?
RM: My personal view is that it is a good environment because it allows people freedom to associate along political lines. But whether that is what the people of Zimbabwe want, maybe we need to subject it to wider to debate to find out what exactly would the people want to see.
CC: ZEC has been conducting an electoral mapping exercise. Where are you with that process?
RM: We are about to wrap up the mapping exercise. We should be completing it by the middle of April. As you know it’s a precursor to voter registration because everyone will be registered at a particular polling station next to your chosen residence.
It need not be your permanent residence, you can choose to go and vote at your rural home or at your relative’s home or where you are lodging or your parent’s home. The choice is entirely yours as long as you can prove some connection to that residence.
CC: How different is this from previous elections like 2013 and how does this improve the voting process?
RM: In 2013, you had to prove connection to a residence but you could vote at any polling station within the ward. Say there were six polling stations within your ward, you could go to any one of those six. But now you can’t do that, your name will only appear at one polling station within your ward.
This will improve the process in different ways. One way is that it will shorten the queues, because each polling station will have a threshold of how many voters it can contain. It will also mean that it will give less work to our officers in processing the number of voters per day.
Instead of having 2 500 voters queueing outside, we will only go up to a maximum of 1 500 voters. So it’s easier for us to manage. It shortens the queue, it’s voter-centric in that we are giving you a polling station that is closest to your home so that you don’t travel long distances especially in the rural areas. We are channelling people to the polling station that is closest to their home.
And even for the voters’ roll, each voters’ roll will now be very short and it becomes easy for you now to scrutinise that roll and say but this name we don’t know, we don’t know of someone by that name staying next door to us. Someone can even come up and say I know that name, that is my neighbour but he passed on three weeks ago.
CC: Is there a specific date as to when you will finish this exercise?
RM: Initially we had set April 4 as the last day for our teams to come back, but because of the rains, especially in Masvingo and Mwenezi, some of the areas were inaccessible and we’ve had to extend the period. We have set April 14 as the new date for their return.
CC: Will the constituencies remain the same as they were in 2013 for the 2018 election?
RM: The constituencies will remain the same, we are not going to do a delimitation for 2018. This means constituencies will remain the same and wards will remain the same, their boundaries will remain the same.
The configuration we are doing is being done within those boundaries. We are bound by the Delimitation Report; I think it’s a 2007 Delimitation Report.
CC: There were reports though that came out in relation to Mount Pleasant Heights, which I believe had been placed in the Mazowe constituency. Could you shed some light on that?
RM: Yes, the people there say they pay their rates in Harare but they have been put in Mazowe. It’s because we are being guided by that Delimitation Report which was done before they were incorporated into Greater Harare.
These are two different procedures. The city boundaries have changed but the electoral boundaries have not. The local authority boundaries can change in between elections but electoral boundaries only change after there has been a delimitation in terms of the Constitution.
CC: Looking at the current situation and events, will ZEC be able to conduct a free and fair election that is beyond dispute come 2018?
RM: ZEC has always been able to conduct free and fair elections in the country. Our processes are clean and we are transparent. We challenge anybody who says they are not to come and show us where they are not. We still have time to improve upon it if they make a case against our processes.