YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Politics in Zimbabwe is “poisonous,” according to the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, an ecumenical body.

The churches signed a joint statement objecting to the stifling of dissent under longtime president Robert Mugabe, saying political opposition is treated as treachery.

On Nov. 8, Mugabe fired his vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, accusing him of consulting witch doctors to find a way to take over power from his longtime ally.

“Our understanding of unity has been corrupted. It is now defined as conformity, passivity and not asking questions and anyone who raises questions is viewed as a sell out and this is now common in both our churches and in political spaces,” said Reverend Kenneth Mutata, ZCC secretary general.

“Our ability to push diverse views and ideas has shrunk and for this reason our politics has become poisonous and there is no more civilized debate in our institutions,” he said.

He said leaders of the ZCBC and ZCC shall continue to speak out against “all forms of oppression and injustice that deprive Zimbabweans of their fullness in life. They shall also join hands in promoting active citizenship and good governance in Zimbabwe.”

Mugabe, now 93, has been accused of gross human rights violations by various human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch.

“During 2016, the government of President Robert Mugabe intensified repression against thousands of people who peacefully protested human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation. It disregarded the rights provisions in the country’s 2013 constitution, and implemented no meaningful human rights reforms,” states Human Rights Watch in its 2017 Report.

The group also lamented that freedom of speech and expression has been curtailed, with journalists subjected to “arbitrary arrest, harassment, and intimidation when reporting on protests,” and the rule of law has been seriously undermined.

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Mugabe became president in 1987 after serving as prime minister under President Canaan Banana, who held the post after the country was officially granted independence in 1980.

Canaan’s role was merely ceremonial, and Mugabe has held the reins of power from the very beginning.

Under his rule, the country has descended from being one of the most prosperous countries in Africa to an economic basket case, a transformation blamed on Mugabe’s disastrous land reforms.

Mugabe himself had admitted that his policy of confiscating land from white farmers and redistributing it to blacks as a measure of social justice has largely flopped.

“I think the farms we gave to people are too large. They can’t manage them,” Mugabe said on state television on the occasion of his 91st birthday.

The country’s unemployment level has hit a staggering 90 percent, and the cash-strapped nation can’t pay for its electric bills.

And while the country teeters on collapse, Mugabe seems more concerned with entrenching a life-long presidency, and making sure that the next president remains in the family circle.

His wife Grace had long signaled her desire to succeed Mugabe, and many observers see the sacking of Mnangagwa as a way to clear the path to the presidency for his spouse.

Mnangagwa has been largely perceived as the favorite to succeed Mugabe, but the president accused him of being “disloyal” – a charge leveled against numerous Mugabe lieutenants considered too popular by the leader.

Despite the apparent maneuvering to ensure his wife succeeds him, Mugabe still intends to run for presidential election next year.

Clergy call for peace as polls approach

As Zimbabweans head for general elections next year – expected to be held between 23 July and 21 August 2018 – the country’s religious leaders have called on political actors to exercise a sense of peace and tolerance.

Zimbabwe’s Heads of the Christian Denominations (ZHOCD) – made up of  the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, and the Union for the Development of Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe – said they remained committed to ensuring peace prevailed in the country ahead of the polls.

They said they have already met with heads of various political parties to propose the setting up of a dialogue forum to ease tensions.

“We believe that sustained dialogue and sustained development are mutually reinforcing and must be adopted as a way of life within Zimbabwe. In this regard, the church continues to call for all stakeholders to engage and dialogue in the journey of rebuilding hope, confidence and stability especially looking into the electoral process underway in our country,” said a statement signed by Anglican Bishop Ishmael Mukuwanda, the head of both the ZHOCD and also ZCC.

“There was consensus on the need for dialogue to be institutionalized, with the church (ZHOCD) as convener, sustain engagement on an agreed code of conduct to ensure that our constitutional values and principles are put into practice before, during and after 2018 elections,” he said.

The religious leaders called for the respect of both electoral and constitutional procedures ahead of the polls.

While encouraging Zimbabweans to register to vote in the 2018 elections, Mukuwanda also called on the various stakeholders “to consider coalescing around a social compact, a commitment to non-violence during the electoral processes.”

But tensions are already running high in a country known for political violence. In 2008, electoral violence erupted when Mugabe refused to leave office, despite being defeated in the first round of a presidential election by his longtime arch-rival, Morgan Tsangarai.