Reflections on the State
of Emergency in Zimbabwe
The protection of individual freedoms during a state of emergency is a challenge to every nation for without them emergency powers are liable to turn a State into a dictatorship. This is a problem which has plagued Africa since the first 'winds of change' swept across the continent. The second 'winds/gales of change' are now bringing with them a fresh commitment to constitutionalism and to the development of new democratic institutions. Thus it is a good moment to reflect on the problems posed by the use of emergency and quasi-emergency powers. In this respect, Zimbabwe offers an excellent case-study with lessons which are applicable continent wide.
In 1980 the Government of Zimbabwe inherited a nation virtually torn apart by a long and vicious bush war and where a tiny white minority had used every means possible to retain political domination. The use of wide-ranging emergency regulations together with other security legislation and a non-justiciable Declaration of Rights had created a legal framework which effectively eliminated individual freedoms. The new nation itself faced serious political, security and economic challenges from both within and without. The fact that it was possible to establish a non-racial, independent and relatively economically healthy nation in the face of these challenges was a considerable achievement for which the government must take great credit. Indeed the practical implementation of the policy of national reconciliation is one which is almost unique in Africa. This was linked to a commitment to constitutionalism despite the fact that the government bitterly disliked many features of the independence Constitution which was imposed by Britain.
Despite these positive features, the previous discussion indicates that the Zimbabwean experience raises several vital policy issues. The first, and perhaps fundamental, issue concerns the actual declaration/retention of a state of emergency. In the case of Zimbabwe, the key question is whether its retention up to 1990 actually assisted government in tackling its problems. There is little evidence to suggest that this was the case. At the risk of being over-simplistic, the dissident question, which was for long the major reason for the retention of the state of emergency, was essentially a political problem which required a political solution — as the results of the Unity Agreement dramatically showed. In addition the increased powers given to the security forces were often abused and instead of helping to resolve the unrest in Matabeleland led to the alienation of a sizeable section of the population and to serious abuses of individual freedoms. This starkly illustrates the fact that the declaration/retention of a state of emergency is not a panacea for all national ills. It creates its own problems such that it must be utilised sparingly and only as a last resort. In this respect the Zimbabwean experience highlights the wisdom and importance of Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It follows that any such declaration must inevitably be temporary, must be of the last resort and that governments have a duty to terminate it at the earliest possible moment. 1 Otherwise the 'Permanence of the Temporary' will prevail, with all its attendant ills. 2 This is a point which the Government