No to Mugabe

Newspapers in Zimbabwe splashed the verdict of the country’s first post-independence referendum with a bold “No!” Fifty-five percent of Zimbabweans who went to the polls in February rejected a draft constitution to replace one drawn up by the former colonial power, Britain.

While the official government paper, Harare’s The Herald, headlined the hard-won victory as “Zimbabweans reject the draft constitution,” the privately owned Daily News of Harare (Feb. 16) put it aptly: “The people have spoken.”

An estimated 1.3 million Zimbabweans of an eligible 5 million braved soaking rains to vote in the referendum that the government was confident would produce a “yes” vote. The draft was hammered together over six months by 400 commissioners handpicked by President Robert Mugabe.

The constitution’s critics said that it would have strengthened Mugabe’s hold on power, allowing him to run for two more terms and granting him sweeping emergency powers.

The government was also set to use the new constitution as a political trump card to grab commercial farms without compensating their white owners, said the Daily News on its front page. “The people have said it: The draft constitution is a daft constitution,” the paper commented. “It was always our view that when it came to the crunch, the people would not be intimated, cajoled, or hoodwinked into voting for something so manifestly counterfeit [that] any intelligent person could spot loopholes and shortcomings from a distance.”

The Herald (Feb. 16) quoted Mugabe as saying the government accepted the results of the referendum and commended its peaceful conduct, although there were violent clashes between ruling Zimbwawe African National Union—Patriotic Front  (ZANU—PF)supporters and those of the new political party, the Movement for Democratic Change.

Furthermore, eight members of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), the prime architect of the “Vote No” campaign, were arrested for allegedly contravening the Electoral Act and later released without charge.

Despite its pro-government stance, The Herald reported that there were mixed views on the outcome of the referendum from political commentators, civic organizations, and observers. “Democracy has triumphed,” The Herald said. “This latest poll must be one of the cleanest since independence. It should help put to rest fears and allegations that the government rigs elections.”

The NCA said the referendum was a clear signal from the people that they were fed up with ZANU—PF control and that Mugabe and his government should resign.

The independent weekly Financial Gazette (Feb. 17) commented that in rejecting the draft constitution, Zimbabweans had also rejected dictatorship and the politics of divide and rule. “Zimbabweans have dramatically reasserted their sovereign authority.”

Writing in the same paper’s “News Focus” column, Sydney Masamvu quoted political commentators who said that the historic rejection of the draft constitution was a direct challenge to Mugabe’s 20-year rule, which could unravel in the general elections scheduled for April.