By Rejoice Ngwenya
Any FIFA Soccer World Cup event -whether hosted on hot desert sands of Qatar; icy coastlands of Sweden or lush equatorial jungles of Brazil – any such event attracts unprecedented global scrutiny. International news networks like CNN, BBC, France 24 and Al Jazeera term it a ‘sporting phenomenon greater than any on this planet’. FIFA Soccer World Cup (FIFA SWC) is driven by a combination of individual corporate euphoria and collective human passion.
This once-every-4-years event is a marvel that attracts some of the biggest brands in the game – both personal and mercantile.
Such is with any national election – albeit once every five years.
Whenever any country- in the civilised world that is – has elections, it is gripped by overwhelming and pervasive national euphoria, and depending on its democratic spectrum, the atmosphere is either carnival or outright antagonistic.
At country level, elections attract personal and political brands that invest millions of dollars to publicise their manifestos. Like FIFA SWC, elections are driven by money and passion, yet when the refereeing is skewed, such events end up violently antagonistic. In any soccer game, arbitration is critical for result acceptance.
That is why FIFA introduced video assisted referring (VAR) in 2018 to ensure that where an offside or foul is disputed, a bemused referee relies on the tool to enhance accuracy of decision. VAR knows no brand. Whether Luka Modric or Cristiano Ronaldo; it matters not if it’s Karim Benzema or Jordan Ayew – VAR rules apply to Lionel Messi of Argentina as they do to Victor Wanyama of Kenya. And that is my point about Zimbabwe’s 2023 Harmonised Parliamentary and Presidential Elections (HPPE).
For many decades, our elections have produced disputed results – hence the introduction of biometric voter registration (BVR) and other forms of electronic assisted monitoring and results compilation (EAMRC). Thus, in principle, if Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) were to deploy these ‘VAR-type’ systems in full, there would be no conflicts and contradictions when results are announced in July 2023.
Yet you and I know that elections in Zimbabwe are subjected to overt and covert political, administrative and monetary optical illusions. What you see is not what it really is. For starters, our country is, on paper, a Constitutional Democracy, but unlike FIFA SWC, electoral statutes apply differently to different protagonists. The ‘defending champions’ ZANU.PF get more ‘time and practice’ in both the political dressing room and field of play. All opposing teams are ‘restricted’ in broadcasting their ‘matches’. Only ZANU.PF fans are ‘allowed’ into the arena while match commissioners, referees, ball boys and even match commentators are said to be ‘captured’ by that party. ZANU.PF gets all the sponsorship money and all roads to the arena are closed to fans save for only those adorned with the ruling party regalia. Opposing teams are compelled to apply for permission to access the field while they are not allowed substitutes in the event of innocuous player injury. In other words, Zimbabwe’s elections are a political optical illusion of unprecedented proportion. This is why I predict that in 2023, all eyes will focus intently on ZEC – particularly on ‘match commissioner’ Priscilla Chigumba and ‘referee’ Utoile Silaigwana.
When Lionel Messi of Argentina hoisted the gold Coupe du Monde Sunday last, billions of viewers around the world were content that his team had won fairly. A penalty victory over determined Kylian Mbappé Lottin and his French gendarmes is not exactly the sexiest way of deciding such an epic context. I still insist the deadly ‘golden goal’ where a team that scored first in extra time was a better means to determine the winner. (“Essentially, the golden goal rule was removed from soccer because it inadvertently encouraged defensive play. Teams were so concerned about conceding that fatal goal that they wouldn’t dare attack at the risk of exposing themselves numerically.”) Yet FIFA 2022 Qatar left an indelible mark because we all agree that the referring – within an acceptable margin of error – was impeccable. England, though pre-tournament favourites, were treated equally with say underdogs Morocco or Senegal. The sweetness of victory is determined by degree of sporting justice and credibility of refereeing. FIFA-approved referees are an asset to the FIFA SWC because their decisions determine game quality and outcome acceptability. Szymon Marciniak is no doubt an ardent soccer fan, but when he took to the field in the penultimate confrontation between Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé in Qatar, he suppressed his personal biases in the interest of global soccer justice. We will never know which team he wanted to prevail because Mr. Marciniak handled the 2022 FIFA SWC Final with the utmost degree of professionalism. The final result was undisputed and uncontested. No supporters died during and after the game – only because Mr. Marciniak and his VAR assistants interpreted the rule book to the best of their knowledge. The gist of game quality is in the perfection of ‘non-aligned’ refereeing.
Therefore, my billion-dollar question is: will Pricilla Chigumba and her ZEC team emulate a ‘Szymon Marciniak’ act of refereeing competence in Zimbabwe’s 2023 HPPEs? Or it will all just be another usual political optical illusion leading to litigation, riots, arrests and deaths? Here is my take.
We all know FIFA is not exactly an ecumenical organisation, the very reason current president Giovanni Vincenzo Infantino had his share of controversies shortly before Qatar 2022. He failed dismally to deal with the issues of Qatar’s woeful labour rights, alcohol sales and LGBT sympathisers. Yet at no time were team registration, match allocation system, publicity, sponsorship and other administrative matters perceived favourable to others or considered unfair. Yet ZEC’s Priscilla Chigumba is already embroiled in unmitigated controversy. Opposition parties are not afforded equal access to anything electoral; voters rolls are subject to heavy criticism so is the ongoing delimitation process. Nobody knows exactly how much HPPEs will cost, where the money is coming from, who will print the ballot papers, how many they will be, quantum of polling stations and location. We don’t even know what ‘reforms’ she and justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi are gearing us up for. Her ‘relationship’ with the ruling party ZANU.PF is equally contentious while ZEC is accused of inconsistent treatment of observers and monitors. High nomination fees have been castigated not to mention ZEC being fingered for selective electoral law implementation. Lionel Messi and Argentina won the FIFA 2022 World Cup not because Giovanni Vincenzo Infantino was ‘suspected’ to have influenced Szymon Marciniak. So, as we celebrate Christmas 2022 today, it is my hope and prayer that HPPE 2023, its EAMRC will find ZEC and Priscilla Chigumba in a Giovanni Vincenzo Infantino / Szymon Marciniak state of preparedness – the epitome of archetypal fairness. Let all allegations against her and Utoile Silaigwana be just that – optical illusions – because their political VAR decisions will determine the life and death of Zimbabwe’s 43-year-old democracy. See you in January 2023!