The United States terminated funding to three Zimbabwean human rights and pro-democracy groups three weeks before the election, a move analysts see undermining the credibility of the country’s first post-Mugabe vote.
A US embassy spokesman said the decision by USAID, Washington’s aid arm, to pull the plug followed a regular internal audit that uncovered “unusual activity” and “non-compliance” in the use of funds, without providing any details.
The affected groups are the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, Counselling Services Unit (CSU), a health clinic that provides medical treatment to victims of police torture and abuse and Election Resource Centre (ERC).
Alongside its broader voter education work, ERC was working on an independent audit of the July 30 election’s voter register, a list at the centre of previous vote-rigging allegations.
The credibility of the voters roll and the election, eight months after the removal of long-time ruler Robert Mugabe, is crucial to establishing a government acceptable to the outside world.
Without that international seal of approval, Harare will be unable to patch up relations with the likes of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to access the large-scale funding it needs to get its moribund economy back on its feet.
“These organisations played an 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 acted unilaterally and without completing its investigations while denying affected parties the right of reply and smearing them in the media.
“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 it would open its books to the public to prove its innocence.
The ERC said its audit of the voters’ roll was affected although should still be concluded in time.
“We have revised our timelines,” spokesman Tawanda Chimhini said. “We remain on track to contribute towards a constitutional, credible, free and fair election.”
US embassy spokesman David McGuire declined to comment on specific allegations or findings of the partial investigations. He also denied Washington was dabbling in domestic politics or guilty of undermining the vote.
“The timing is unfortunate but when you’re looking at protecting your investments and you uncover wrongdoing, our philosophy is you have to act swiftly,” he said. The funding cuts were only a “small percentage” of Washington’s annual $225 million aid package.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who succeeded 94-year-old Mugabe after November’s military intervention, is expected to win a close vote.