By Tinomudaishe Chinyoka
It started circulating on Tuesday. By Wednesday, it had spawned longer and shorter versions, but the import remained the same: the number of people who voted in Chiredzi was too high for 10 polling stations.
It went like this: “some 40,000 people voted in one Chiredzi constituency, which means 4,000 people voted per polling station which means 333 per hour or 5 per minute or one every 12 seconds.”
Sometimes, different numbers are used, but the meaning was the same: ZEC was announcing cooked numbers because how can anyone vote in 12 or 45 or 50 seconds (depending on the starting number per version.) After all, we all voted and we know that the process takes a minimum 2 or so minutes, more if you are assisted.
It sounded all very logical, this analysis. And it seemed to suggest some nefarious actions by ZEC. And so it spread, as I have said, from group to group, mother to mother, wife to sister-wife. This is, after all, the country of data and bundles: sometimes, with good haggling skills, you can buy fruit at the market and pay in airtime or bundles.
So that when eNCA interviewed protesters later in the day prior to and after the law enforcement action which resulted in fatalities, at least two of them referred to Chiredzi. Not to Harare South, where arguably the highest number of voters cast their ballots, but Chiredzi. “How can you honestly have people voting one every 45 seconds In Chiredzi?” asked one very irate protester.
Another protester referred to ‘4000 people voting in one booth’, despite the fact that each typical polling station had to have a maximum 1000 voters.
One official of the main opposition even posted a video in which he said (offering no evidence) that more people had voted in Chiredzi than the entire population of that town. Never mind that the constituency in question includes both the tiny town settlement and surrounding areas. Chiredzi, it seemed, was confirmation that ZEC is cooking the numbers.
By then, the text circulating was succinct, scathing and ironic: “35000 people voted in Chiredzi over a 12 hour period. That is 2 916 people per hour. Assuming they used 10 poling stations….that is 291 people per hour…this is efficiency at the highest level. Chiredzi registered voters, how many?”
Of course, this could all have been avoided if people had read what Kuda Musasiwa, a prominent social commentator, said on his Twitter page about the cooking of numbers in Chiredzi: “This is misleading. Each polling station had a maximum of 1000 voters and could allow 3 people to vote at a time. So let’s say 40 polling stations , with 3 people voting every 2 mins. As a polling agent I find it text ridiculous. In Mt Pleasant we had 19000 in 30 stations we here done by 5pm!”
As for the question of how many voters there were, Kuda was even less patient: “The population doesn’t matter it’s the voters roll that matters. It’s ONLINE. Go and see it. 45K registered voters. Not even the Alliance is contesting that.”
Evidently, purveyors of this false narrative had started with one fatal mathematics error: they assumed a number which should never have been taken from thin air: the number of polling stations. In all versions of the text, the number of polling stations was put at 10. Even the fact that in each polling station there were a minimum of 3 voting booths was not taken into account.
A simple check with ZEC would have debunked this false narrative: they have lists of how many polling stations are in each constituency! And it is never 10.
Quite where the number 10 came from no one knows. But, it had zero basis in fact. With a minimum of four polling stations per ward and at least six wards per constituency, the lowest number of polling stations in a constituency should be about 24. With at least three voting booths in each polling station at a minimum, that gives you a decidedly higher total than was being banded about.
And, given that some polling stations didn’t necessarily have 1000 voters, there were much more polling stations per constituency than a simple extrapolation of registered voters divided by 1000 would suggest. A figure of 10,900 polling stations across the 210 constituencies has been mentioned. That is so much more than the 10 per constituency that the viral text was suggesting.
But, by their own admission, some people went to protest the “stealing of their vote” as a result of an irresponsible Whatsapp text. The video from the opposition party with a lawyer who purports to speak on behalf of the main opposition candidate makes the point about Chiredzi, but does not interrogate this false narrative. In addition, the lawyer asks: why are the Presidential results late?
True, in some countries the result would have become known soon after an election (though to be fair that’s not the official certified result). However, perhaps due to 2008, these same lawyers agreed a law which says that the result must be available within 5 days of an election. Yes, by Wednesday the result was not available but it was not late. Because legally, it only becomes late after Saturday.
As a voter, I personally would have wanted to know the result of the Presidential election the moment polls closed on Monday. In fact, I would have wanted that result long before all these other numbers we are getting. Failing that, I would have wanted for ZEC to announce, together with the Parliamentary votes, the Presidential election numbers for each constituency for which they are giving us results. So, there is room for improvement.
As a citizen, I think politicians need to respect us more. I think it is unfair for anyone to use a misleading set of facts for political advantage. Now, I am not at all suggesting that the Whatsapp text was deliberately created to form a certain narrative, but when it entered the discourse, I am sure there were many who came to the same view as Kuda and who could have quickly debunked its premise. The failure to do that, was a failure of leadership.
Even ZEC, who have indicated that they too see some things on social media, failed by not simply sending out a message with the correct number of polling stations in Chiredzi.
I think when politicians see a situation beginning to look like it might go out of hand, they must refrain from saying things like ‘we are prepared to die to defend our vote’ as we have heard some say. Firstly because it is manifestly false: none of them were on the streets when the young people who protested on Wednesday were dispersed by security services.
Secondly, because while we might disagree with their methods, those young people have a genuine personal interest in their vote. Yes, it is very likely, given the Parliamentary election results, that their preferred candidate might have lost, but their instincts say that’s not possible. That is not an unreasonable instinct: their candidate had overwhelming support where they live. To them, everyone they know seems to have voted for him, so it makes no sense, to them, that he might have lost.
The fact that the results weren’t being announced, and that there were unrefuted claims of people voting every 45 seconds in Chiredzi, just made these mostly young people angrier. What they needed was leadership. To be told why the results hadn’t been announced. To be told to be patient until the results were in before reacting. To be told that there was no result until there was a result.
Not to be fed a narrative that was consistent with their views: namely that their candidate had won and his vote was being stolen. That, was a failure of leadership.
They needed sober minds to explain to them the obvious: elections have winners and learners. And that just as they felt that everyone they knew voted for their candidate, their counterparts in Mudzi, Muzarabani, Uzumba, Rushinga, Shamva and yes, Chiredzi, would be feeling that everyone they knew voted for the other guy. The failure to do that was a failure of leadership.
What they didn’t need was to be told that the votes from those places were cooked by ZEC. That, was a failure of leadership.
In the aftermath of the law enforcement operation which resulted in fatalities, we are all collectively saddened and pained by the loss of life that could have been avoided. We must not, however, as others are already doing, rush to apportion blame and bandy around words like ‘nothing justifies murder’ or ‘the army has no role in policing’. This is irresponsible. The law on the use of force during protests is very clear: force must be used proportionately to the threat. There is a duty to investigate, after the security situation is handled, whether such force was warranted. Throwing words like ‘murder’ around merely inflames the situation and prejudges what is usually a complicated set of facts.
And it’s not true that the army has no role in law enforcement. The law allows for situations where the police can call on the army for help in dealing with a security threat. Given that many police officers are deployed around the country at polling stations, clearly it was inevitable that any protest in the capital might pose manpower challenges to the police, thus creating the need to ask for help from the army. International human rights law accepts that soldiers can sometimes be called upon to assist the police, but should remain under police leadership. That is what we are told happened in Harare.
These are tense times. Our country needed a peaceful election. We got that. We need a peaceful post-election period. We did not get that.
Times like these call for leadership. Unfortunately, in this country, we tend to conflate leadership with office. To truly lead, one does not need political office. Instead, one needs to be the voice of reason when irrationality threatens to take over, the voice of calm and restraint when impatience threatens to reign, and the voice of wisdom when reliance is placed on wrong facts.
Yes, there are people that believe this or that candidate won. Leadership is not the opportunistic exploitation of these beliefs to carry us to the next level on our political journey. Leadership is to offer restraint and patience, to prepare our supporters for an unfavourable outcome or lawful battles ahead should we feel the need to challenge an unfavourable outcome.
We are a peaceful people. We got rid of a tyrant peacefully. Surely we can elect a democrat peacefully as well?
Tinomudaishe Chinyoka is a Harare based lawyer, who is a member of the ruling Zanu PF party.