As Zimbabwe's crunch national elections draw ever closer, the jostling for votes is increasingly taking an ominous tone — with leading presidential candidates and the under-fire chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), Priscilla Chigumba, now major targets of social media abuse.
This comes as Zec has filed a formal report to the police against threats which it says have been made to its commissioners by irate people claiming to be opposition sympathisers — who have taken to social media to vent their frustrations with the national elections management body.
Indeed, a casual sampling of local social media timelines on an average day reveals the worrying extent to which President Emmerson Mnangagwa, opposition leader Nelson Chamisa and Chigumba in particular have become the targets of some of the most vile trolling imaginable anywhere.
This prompted analysts who spoke to the Daily News yesterday to call for “sense and decency” from social media users in particular — while also warning that what had promised to be a titanic, exciting poll on July 30 now risked being sullied by the increasing political tension in the country, as well as the growing reckless utterances of some political leaders and their supporters.
Just days after she was falsely said to have resigned from Zec, Chigumba was yesterday subjected to what came across as crude personal attacks — including by former State media editors — who not only said that the High Court judge should resign, but also made unconfirmed claims to the effect that she was allegedly r0mantically linked to one of the presidential contestants in the forthcoming elections.
“Chigumba must resign from her position at Zec. While her privacy must ordinarily be respected, there is a strong public interest argument in this instance where a private se_xual relationship fetters the discretion of a judge.
“I will publish the full story (on these allegations) on Wednesday,” wrote former Sunday Mail editor Edmund Kudzayi yesterday on micro-blogging site Twitter.
Contacted by the Daily News for a comment last night, a diplomatic Chigumba would only say that she would not “sink to the level of commenting on spurious allegations”.
Prominent commentators who responded to Kudzayi’s claims accused him of trying to “slut-shame” the Zec chairperson by prying into her private life.
Among these personalities was political science scholar Chipo Dendere who questioned why the debate on July 30 elections had now degenerated into personal wars.
“Really? Must we do this? If she was a man no one would care how many people she’s been with and how many children she may or may not have.
“What Justice Chigumba does in private is just that — private. Her private life is none of our business. I don’t always agree with Zec,” she said.
But Kudzayi shot back saying: “Chigumba is well resourced and can sue me if I am lying that she is having se_xual relations with a key player in this election. That in itself is a conflict of interest. I don’t care if you think I’m se_xist”.
Zimbabwe will hold its crunch elections on July 30 — which for the first time in two decades will not feature both ousted former president Robert Mugabe and the late MDC founding leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who lost his valiant battle against colon cancer at the beginning of the year.
The July 30 elections have generated a lot of interest among both ordinary Zimbabweans and ambitious politicians alike, with many people anticipating a close contest between Zanu PF and the MDC Alliance.
Mnangagwa, 75, is seeking a substantive term in the impending elections, in which he will face the youthful Chamisa and 21 other presidential aspirants who include four women.
But the run-up to the crucial elections has been marred by growing tension and threats by the MDC Alliance to announce the results of the poll ahead of Zec, over fears that the national elections management body is compromised.
Apart from threatening to announce the results of the elections ahead of Zec, the MDC Alliance has also vowed to hold night vigils at the Zec offices until its demands have been met.
“This is an electoral field full of political madness and mudslinging, where anyone can say anything and also clutch at straws to try and have an edge over their opponents.
“If Chigumba had such a level of conflict of interest, for example, why was this not brought to the fore in Parliament which endorsed her appointment?
“And when Chigumba was on the bench and made many favourable rulings to the opposition why were the supposed sex scandals not brought up?
“The fact is that people must separate issues around Zec’s clumsiness and rigging with their personal dignities,” political analyst Maxwell Saungweme told the Daily News.
International Crisis Group senior consultant for southern Africa Piers Pigou also slammed the growing incidence of fake news regarding Zimbabwe’s polls — which he said was doing a disservice to ordinary people who were looking for respite from the July 30 elections.
“In a context of so much lying and disinformation, it is appropriate to avoid jumping to conclusions and believing any sensational copy at face value.
“Sadly, repeated lies and opinions have mutated into ‘facts’ on multiple issues. This is a major disservice to ordinary Zimbabweans,” Pigou said.
With just two weeks before the country goes to its polls, tension has been rising as the opposition and pro-democracy groups demand that Zec accedes to their key demands of availing the voters’ roll and also allow them to witness the printing of ballots.
Last week, Chamisa accused Zec of being “biased” and “incompetent” after the MDC Alliance raised some irregularities during the postal vote by police at Bulawayo’s Ross Camp.
Both opposition parties and rights groups have also warned authorities that the eagerly-anticipated harmonised elections were now at the risk of losing their credibility altogether, unless Zec acted on all the serious flaws that contesting parties have cited.
Kudzayi and his brother were 2014 accused of being the characters behind the faceless but popular “Baba Jukwa” Facebook page that spewed loads of Zanu PF top secrets.
The page had more than 40 000 followers.
They were arrested and charged with terrorism and undermining the president’s authority in what political analysts said was a culmination of Zanu PF’s messy succession wars.
He denied the allegations and was in 2015 set free after the State withdrew charges against the siblings.