Spanner in the works: President Emmerson Mnangagwa is expected to win the closely contested July 30 election. Analysts say USAID’s decision to cut funding is likely to undermine the vote. Picture: REUTERS
Spanner in the works: President Emmerson Mnangagwa is expected to win the closely contested July 30 election. Analysts say USAID’s decision to cut funding is likely to undermine the vote. Picture: REUTERS

The US has terminated funding to three Zimbabwean human rights and pro-democracy groups three weeks before an election, a move that analysts say could undermine the credibility of the country’s first post-Mugabe vote.

USAID, Washington’s aid arm, said the decision to pull the plug followed a regular internal audit that uncovered "unusual activity" and "noncompliance" in the use of funds, without providing any details.

The affected groups are the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, Counselling Services Unit (CSU), a clinic that provides medical treatment to victims of police torture and abuse, and Election Resource Centre (ERC).

Alongside its broader voter education work, the ERC has been working on an independent audit of the July 30 election’s register of voters, a list that has been at the centre of vote-rigging allegations in the past.

The credibility of the voters roll and the election, eight months after the removal of long-time president Robert Mugabe in a de facto military coup, is crucial to establishing a government that is acceptable to the outside world.

Without that international seal of approval, Harare will be unable to patch up relations with the likes of the IMF and World Bank to access the large-scale funding it needs to get its moribund economy back on its feet.

"These organisations have played a really important watchdog role," said Piers Pigou, a Zimbabwe analyst at the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. "This has political implications." All three NGOs denied any wrongdoing and challenged USAID, saying it had acted unilaterally and without completing its investigations and had denied the affected parties the right of reply and had smeared them in the media.

"The blanket embassy statements, innuendo and allegations are deeply distressing to the board, staff and survivors of torture in Zimbabwe," CSU said in a statement, adding that it would be opening its books to the public to prove its innocence.

The ERC said its audit of the voters roll had been affected, although it should still be concluded in time.

"We have just revised our timelines," spokesman Tawanda Chimhini said. "We remain on track to contribute towards a constitutional, credible, free and fair election."

A USAID spokesman, David McGuire, declined to comment on the specific allegations or the findings of the partial investigations. He also denied that Washington was dabbling in domestic politics or guilty of undermining the July 30 election.

"The timing obviously is unfortunate but when you’re looking at protecting your investments and you uncover wrongdoing, our philosophy is that you have to act swiftly," he said. The funding cuts were only a "small percentage" of Washington’s annual $225m aid package, he added.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who succeeded Mugabe, 94, after the November coup, is expected to win a close election.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Mozambique is sitting on a huge problem of its own as it emerges as a key hub in the heroin trade.

Heroin is now the country’s second largest export as it is smuggled from Afghanistan to Europe, according to a new report. More than 40 tonnes each year is moved via Pakistan across the Indian Ocean in dhows and taken ashore in northern Mozambique, said the report by London-based researcher Joseph Hanlon, published this week.

The drug is stashed in trucks and driven 3,000km to Johannesburg before being shipped to Europe in a network organised through WhatsApp and Blackberry messages by dealers in Dubai. "The Dubai dealer contacts a more junior figure in Kenya or northern Mozambique, who sends out Uber-like WhatsApp messages to fishing people telling them to pick up the drugs," wrote Hanlon, of the London School of Economics.

Hanlon, a veteran specialist in Mozambique, said that previous government involvement in the trade had evolved into an informal business built on petty bribes and mobile phone messaging. Drivers pay off police as there is "some trust involved, even the contracting parties have never met and only correspond by WhatsApp", he said.

Mozambique has been a corridor for heroin trading for 25 years, but volumes have increased in recent years, says the report. Mozambique’s police said the long coastline made tackling the trade difficult. "Great work has been done by police at airports, but we have the problem of vulnerability of land and sea borders," police spokesman Inacio Dina said.

Reuters, AFP