ZIMBABWE: Struggling to create a constitution

HARARE, 28 September 2010 (IRIN) - Violence has marred the series of outreach meetings being held across Zimbabwe, where members of the Constitutional Parliamentary Select Committee (COPAC) come to hear what ordinary Zimbabweans want to be included in their new constitution.

Brian Kachingwe, 22, who lives in Chitungwiza, a town about 25km south of Harare, the capital, and is studying political science at the University of Zimbabwe, suffered head injuries and a broken nose after violence broke out at an outreach meeting about two weeks ago.

When he went to the local government hospital to have his injuries treated, he was detained for six hours. The attackers were not arrested and his parents have had to pay for the medical expenses.

"It is unfortunate that I never had the chance to air my views ... I will not risk the danger of attending outreach programmes in the future. This is a blow on democracy," he said.

Last week Chrispen Mandizvidza, an activist in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, died after a meeting in Harare ended in violence.

COPAC, jointly led by the MDC and Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF, suspended the process in Harare and Chitungwiza, noting the allegations of intimidation, threats and violence. "The atmosphere might not have been conducive for the free expression of opinion by some participants." Nevertheless, the process of public consultation will continue.

The Herald, a state-run newspaper quoted Munyaradzi Paul Mangwana, a ZANU-PF member and co-chair of COPAC as saying, "We, however, successfully completed 69 meetings in Harare."

A new constitution is one of the requirements stipulated by the Global Political Agreement, signed in September 2008 between Zimbabwe's three main political parties: the MDC, a smaller group of the MDC led by Arthur Mutambara, and ZANU-PF led by Mugabe, president in the current coalition government.

The outreach process began early in 2010 and is expected to be wrapped up by the end of September 2010. But since about May 2010, in an operation dubbed "Vhara Muromo", or Shut Your Mouth, members of the youth militia aligned to ZANU-PF have allegedly been warning villagers to either shut up or support the party's views on the new constitution.

ZANU-PF wants an existing draft constitution, commonly referred to as the Kariba Draft, to be adopted. It places no limit on the number of presidential terms, and gives the president wide-ranging powers.

Mugabe has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980 and the new constitution will replace the Lancaster House Agreement, which has been amended 19 times. The new constitution, if approved in a national referendum, will open the way to elections in 2011.

John Makumbe, a Harare-based political scientist and university lecturer, told IRIN he feared a referendum would lead to violence "just as we saw in 2000, when the rejection of the referendum saw the government of Mugabe unleashing soldiers on civilians".

The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, an umbrella body for NGOs promoting human rights, said the victimization of participants was rife. "The violent disruptions by suspected ZANU-PF supporters, and the ensuing lethargy by the police in stopping the violence," the coalition noted in a statement.

"The Harare disruptions give credence to earlier allegations of intimidation and violence in rural areas, particularly Mashonaland and Manicaland provinces."

Teachers under threat

Teachers, particularly in rural areas, have reported victimisation during the process. "All those responsible for violence and killing in rural communities are actually killing the teaching profession and destroying the education of our children," said David Coltart, the Minister for Education, Sport, Arts and Culture.

Raymond Majongwe, secretary general of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), noted that "Our members have made reports of militias and unidentified people visiting them before the arrival of COPAC teams and warning them against making any contributions during the outreach sessions."

Teachers in rural areas have been avoiding the consultations out of fear. "A few have, however, managed to make written submissions, but it is sad that teachers ... have not been given the chance to participate freely in the making of a democratic constitution," Majongwe told IRIN.

SW Radio, an independent broadcaster, reported Tsvangirai as saying: "The [outreach] process was to ensure that all Zimbabweans give views but unfortunately ... violence ensued. It has to be, ultimately, a negotiated settlement."