Coup, Constitution and Commission: Commission of Inquiry into Zimbabwean Electoral Violence Confirms Military Killings of Civilians

by | Dec 21, 2018

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About Jason Brickhill

Jason Brickhill is a doctoral candidate and tutor at the University of Oxford, an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar and an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town. His doctoral research looks at the impact of strategic litigation in South Africa. He has published widely in constitutional law and human rights, his latest book being J Brickhill (ed) Public Interest Litigation in South Africa (Juta 2018). He is the former Director of the Constitutional Litigation Unit of the Legal Resources Centre. As an advocate, Jason has appeared frequently in the superior courts of South Africa. His academic work has also been cited on several occasions by the Constitutional Court of South Africa.


Jason Brickhill, ‘Coup, Constitution and Commission: Commission of Inquiry into Zimbabwean Electoral Violence Confirms Military Killings of Civilians’ (OxHRH Blog, 20 December 2018) <> [date of access].

In a series of earlier posts, I have tracked a series of events in Zimbabwe beginning with the military-assisted coup to remove Robert Mugabe and install Emmerson Mnangagwa as President. The coup of November 2017 and its assault on constitutionalism is the dark strand running through the ensuing events.

In ‘Coup and Constitution’, I argued that the coup, though popular, caused a fundamental rupture in the rule of law and worryingly injected the military directly into political life. In ‘Coup, Constitution and the Count’, I discussed the ensuing national elections, with Mnangagwa announced the narrow victor of the Presidential election, results that appeared flawed in the face of the available data. In ‘Coup, Constitution and the Court’, I criticised the Constitutional Court decision dismissing the electoral challenge on technical grounds. In the midst of the election process, before the final results, protests had broken out on 1 August 2018. Military units were deployed, using whips and live ammunition, and six civilians were killed and many more injured. President Mnangagwa responded by appointing a Commission of Inquiry.

The latest development in this sequence saw the release on 18 December 2018 of the report of the Commission. President Mnangagwa had appointed a 7-member commission of inquiry, chaired by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe. The commission included international and Zimbabwean members. Other commentators have noted that some of the local members are closely associated with the ruling party.

The key findings of the Commission are that:

  • the protests were unlawful riots incited, organised and planned by the opposition MDC Alliance;
  • the deployment of the military complied with applicable constitutional and legislative provisions;
  • the use of live ammunition and whipping of civilians by the military and police was disproportionate.

The Commission makes several recommendations, including state compensation for victims and their families; promotion of political tolerance; electoral reforms to enable the quicker release of results; enforcement of law and order; accountability for perpetrators; and nation-building and reconciliation through multi-party dialogue.

Importantly, the Commission finds that there is no evidence of anyone other than the police and military using firearms on 1 August, and finds that the 6 deaths and 35 injuries were the result of the actions of the police and military. The report recommends that the police need to urgently complete their investigations to enable prosecutions of anyone who committed offences; and recommends internal investigations within the military and police. This finding should be welcomed, especially in the face of the breathtaking denials by the military leadership that soldiers injured and killed people. However, the Commission appears to have done nothing to identify the specific members of the police and military responsible for authorizing the use of live ammunition or those individuals who assaulted and shot civilians. Nor does the Commission comment on the obvious implication that military leadership brazenly lied to the Commission about who carried out the violence.

Overall, the tone and content of the report is un-balanced and the Commission appeared to have little understanding of the history of electoral malpractice and violence in post-independence Zimbabwe. The report begins its conclusion with the bizarre statement that the electoral violence was unprecedented in independent Zimbabwe. Given that there is well-documented evidence of the ruling party deploying the military against opposition supporters during previous elections, most notably in 2008 when hundreds of opposition deaths and widespread rape, torture and assault were reported, the report appears deliberately ahistorical. The Commission merely mentions that it heard evidence of ‘persisting grievances’ of the Gukurahundi violence of the 1980s. (Independent accounts of Gukurahundi have estimated that thousands of civilians were murdered by the military. There have never been prosecutions and the reports of judicial commissions of inquiry have not been released.)

The Commission goes into more detail, and uses harsher language, to castigate the opposition for triggering the protests than it does discussing the assault and killings of civilians by soldiers. The report also panders to President Mnangagwa, repeatedly praising him for preaching political tolerance – statements that jar when the Commission finds, almost in passing and based on hearsay evidence of the commander of the defence forces, that the same President (lawfully) authorised the deployment of the military.

Despite its unbalanced and ahistorical approach, the Commission has at least confirmed what the whole world following the events in the media already knew – that the military assaulted and killed civilians on 1 August. Now Zimbabweans wait to see if there are real efforts to hold the military accountable; or if the only action will be against opposition politicians alleged to have triggered the protests.

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