Since the Mnangagwa administration took office in Zimbabwe, expectations of a transformative approach to civil and human rights violations have dampened. Continuing waves of state violence are alleged to have conjoined with a shrinking of the democratic space. Photojournalist Lovejoy Mutongwiza captures the country’s developments.
When President Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s new leader on 24 November 2017, a key expectation was the immediate end to the impunity and systematic human rights abuses that had become institutionalised under predecessor Robert Mugabe’s 37 years of unbroken rule. Two years down the line, however, all pronouncements on the issue look like cheap political talk by a man who took advantage of people’s excitement and eagerness for change.
The Mnangagwa administration, the ‘New Dispensation’, has not taken any tangible steps to demonstrate a commitment to accountability, justice for human rights abuses or respect for the rule of law.
In its 2019 report entitled ‘The New Deception: What has Changed’, the Zimbabwe NGO Human Rights Forum critiqued the government’s record on human rights violations. The report reflected on the promises made by the President when he took his oath of office to return to constitutionalism and the rule of law, highlighting the nature and distribution of violations witnessed since November 2017 when Robert Mugabe was overthrown, in what was officially termed a ‘military-assisted transition’.
Indeed 2019 witnessed a rise in human rights abuses by the New Dispensation as human rights defenders, opposition members, the media and civil society leaders were all subjected to forms of human rights violations.
Police crackdown and forced disappearances
Countrywide protests in January 2018 over economic hardships, sparked by a sudden rise in fuel prices, were met with a brutal backlash by the army and police. According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, 17 people lost their lives. On 18 January 2019, following the protests, the government imposed a total internet shutdown which critics said was designed to blackout social media reports of a violent crackdown on the protests.
The protests came at the height of Mnangagwa and his government’s ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’ mantra, in an effort to attract much-needed foreign direct investment. Potential investors frowned at the level of human rights abuses by the administration and thus the people of Zimbabwe continued to suffer at the hands of misrule and human rights abuses by the government.
Since then, several cases of abductions and violence show that little has changed, with comedians, civil society leaders and human rights defenders having all been allegedly abducted by suspected state agents in an effort to silence Mnangagwa’s critics. The widely publicised case of a doctor and labour activist, Dr Peter Magombeyi, whose alleged abduction led to widespread protests by medical staff, has been one of several incidents of forced disappearances reported in local media in recent months.
The Mnangagwa administration’s failure to address the economic situation means citizens continue to be riled and the country is on the verge of serious food shortages, which have been aided by a severe drought. A United Nations official recently noted that Zimbabwe was on the brink of man-made starvation – more than 60% of the 14 million population are considered food insecure, according to recent findings.
This squashes hopes in the eyes of millions of citizens who had high praises for Mnangagwa’s government in November 2017.
Opposition party leader, Nelson Chamisa, is embarking on a whirlwind tour around the country to prepare his party for mass protests aimed at forcing President Mnangagwa to act on the economic crisis bedeviling the country. However, in 2019, Chamisa’s rallies were thwarted by the police who would not greenlight his address to his supporters.
On several occasions, Chamisa’s supporters were severely beaten by the police, an institution which remains highly politicised due to its control by the Zanu-PF party led government.
Although activists have tried to denounce the shrinking democratic space, they have also been met with police brutality or have been victims of surveillance and threats from state security. ZimRights, a human rights lobby groups, says there is fear that the situation in Zimbabwe will escalate into civil war if the responsible authorities do not act.
Recently, Zimbabwe has witnessed a new wave of violence at the hands of illegal miners who use dangerous weapons like machetes, axes and sometimes guns to fight for open mining pits in several areas around the country.
‘It’s (the situation in Zimbabwe) not looking good. The rise of militant groups, machete violence and gun violence shows our crisis is reaching new levels. Throw in the rising political temperatures and marauding armed groups and we are in danger of an armed conflict.
‘Remember at the 2017 coup many arms fell into unknown hands. Our situation is urgent,’ said Dzikamai Bere, the Director of the lobby group.
The failures of the New Dispensation thus have a long and tragic bearing on the people of Zimbabwe politically, socially and economically. There is a heavy cloud of fear engulfing millions of desperate Zimbabweans that if Mnangagwa and his government remain on the offensive, as they have done in the past two years, the country will soon turn into a warzone.
Executive Director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, Roselyn Hanzi, is of the opinion that for the New Dispensation to get on track, there is need to return to constitutionalism and the rule of law, which starts by implementing the progressive provisions of the 2013 Constitution.
‘At the moment there are intentions to amend several provisions of the Constitution. This is unfortunate as these proposed amendments undermine some key tenets of democracy, particularly separation of powers between the three arms of government,’ she says.
The amendments seek to consolidate power in the President, enabling him to appoint judicial officers in the higher courts (Supreme Court and Constitutional Courts) and undermine independence of the judiciary in long term. This means the President will have power to appoint Prosecutor General, an office which is supposed to be headed by someone whose independence is guaranteed through a transparent process. It also removes the participatory power of citizens to elect the presidium team because the running mate provisions are removed.
Hanzi adds that for the New Dispensation to be taken seriously and for it to turn the leaf, ‘there has to be political will to reform institutions that have a mandate to protect human rights such as the police, or strengthen existing institutions such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) rather than having a multiplicity of weak institutions without adequate resources as will happen if the amendment bill passes, which will add the Public Protector to the list of institutions that require resources.’
For the public to have full faith in the government in 2020, there has to be consistency in policy, dialogue and respect of human rights. Otherwise, Zimbabwe will once again be reading from the 2019 manual.