MS Risk Blog

Zimbabwe: Muzzling Democracy and Freedom in the Age of COVID19

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The Zimbabwean bloodless coup that was not a coup of 2017, largely oversaw a non-violent transition of power from the former president Robert Mugabe to the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa and this was met with a high level of optimism, and in some quarters, euphoria. The sense of goodwill was shared across the country, in civil society and even from the opposition.

In the ensuing years since the moment that marked a promising watershed in Zimbabwe’s turbulent political landscape, the country and the world has witnessed ZANU-PF’s return to the business as usual of repressive political tactics that undermine democracy, mismanagement of the economy, and crushing of dissent including any perceived threats.

Perhaps in the most astounding illustration of irony, the same leaders who deposed former president Robert Mugabe in order to free all Zimbabweans from his tyrannical dictatorship and work towards a freer, more transparent society, are the very same crushing dissent that had been an essential human right to be respected no less than 3 years ago.

The coronavirus pandemic has presented a unique set of challenges in individual countries and some are shared, however in the case of Zimbabwe, the troubles of its own making have been heightened by the Covid-19 crisis to a degree that has resulted in a shocking display of human rights abuses and suppression of dissent under the guise of anti-coronavirus measures.

The events of 20 July 2020 in which Zimbabwean police arrested and detained the prominent investigative journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono, bring to a head ZANU-PF’s longstanding disdain for any critical media, or generally any critique that exposes its shortcomings. The arrest of Hopewell comes after he had blown the whistle on a $60 million procurement corruption scandal involving the former Health Minister, Obadiah Moyo, in June 2020. Chin’ono was charged with “incitement to participate in public violence.” His lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, insists that Chin’ono was abducted by the police without a warrant. Around the same time police detained Jacob Ngarivhume on the same charge. Ngarivhume is the leader of Transform Zimbabwe, a political group spearheading plans for a national anti-corruption protest that was scheduled for 31 July. Although the arrest of Chin’ono and Ngarivhume is among several others of a similar nature, these two have been a catalyst in prompting widespread public outcry. On the eve of Chin’ono and Ngarivhume’s 22 July court appearance, President Emmerson Mnangagwa ordered his security forces to enforce a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew and ban of large gatherings. This was reportedly in response to a recent spike in Covid-19 case.

Zimbabwe’s increase in authoritarian measures has hardly been a unique phenomenon in southern Africa during the Coronavirus pandemic, in where several countries in the region have appeared to use punitive measures under the guise of enforcing anti-coronavirus lockdown measures. Generally, this has been relatively begrudgingly tolerated with some incidences of civil unrest in a number of countries in the region, but not to the extent that is has in Zimbabwe.

What differs about the Zimbabwe case is that this latest bout of suppression, under the guise of anti-coronavirus measures, directed at the citizenry appears to be an overspill of a variety of pre-existing mostly self-made challenges that are yet to be resolved or addressed adequately. It is also eclipsed by a wider global discourse on police brutality, instigated by the murder of George Floyd in the United States of America. In the face of calls to treat all humans with dignity, uphold democracy and hold the police and state accountable for unnecessary brute force and denial of basic civil rights, the case of Zimbabwe stands out awkwardly for some of its blaring similarities. The prevalence of the pandemic has only heightened these issues in a way that cannot be ignored and has elicited local and international condemnation for the way in which the government is attempting to effectively silence all critique into its handling of the pandemic, the economy, state corruption and an all but collapsed health sector.

Overcoming Zimbabwe’s troubled history and steering the country towards a more prosperous future was never going to be an overnight job that came with a magic silver bullet, a challenge acknowledged by Mnangagwa himself. Perhaps the most trying of the challenges was formulating inventive ways to reverse the continual freefall of Zimbabwe’s economy towards fiscal ruin at proportions only last witnessed in 2008.  Removing Mugabe from the presidency and leadership of ZANU-PF may have bought some time and even engendered an opportunity to rebuild battered relations with the international community, however the urgency for tangible solutions during the pandemic has shortened the patience of many Zimbabweans.  The arrest of more than 105,0000 people for allegedly violating lockdown regulations since March 2020, including 3 female opposition MPs in June who were also sexually assaulted, points to a largely reactionary government using the pandemic as a one size fits all cover purposed for convenient deflection. While the coronavirus has had a negative impact on Zimbabwe’s already fragile economy and citizenry, the government has used the cover of Covid-19 to quietly and quickly introduce amendments to the constitution. Although amendments were already in motion prior to the implementation of lockdown in March 2020, the push to complete the process under lockdown and a state of emergency, while banning all protests and public gatherings of more than 50 is an example of sheer cunning by the government to do away with any legitimate democratic process where citizens are consulted. It is for one of these reasons that current government action to supress press freedom, civil society, the opposition, lawyers, members of the health sector, trade unionists and more is met with extreme alarm and deep suspicion. Dissatisfaction with the government prior to the pandemic was already increasing to the levels not seen since 2008 as the country appeared to be hurtling to a period of similar, if not worse, uncertainty and instability. Any measure of goodwill the citizenry and the international community may have had for Mnangagwa’s premiership is likely to decrease significantly as his government moves further away from its inaugural commitment towards a freer and more democratic and transparent country. From the attempts at amending the constitution under the cover of Covid-19 in addition to widespread repression of almost every facet of society, it is evident that dissatisfaction with the government does not go unnoticed by ZANU-PF and the active measures to secure ZANU-PF’s hold on power by any means necessary seems to be the order of the day again.