Targeted abductions and detentions are dismantling opposition to President Mnangagwa’s government – just when Zimbabwe needs civil society more than ever.
When Emmerson Mnangagwa ousted Robert Mugabe in November 2017, the president and his allies were eager to draw a line under the abuses of the ancien regime. This was the new Zimbabwe, they said, and things were going to be different. Political space was to be opened. Criticism was to be welcomed. Civil society was to be engaged with.
For a while, there really was a glimmer of a new Zimbabwe.
The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, was allowed to campaign freely ahead of the July 2018 election. They held huge rallies in parts of the country where they had previously been denied access and experienced a dramatic decline in instances of intimidation.
A generation of young Zimbabweans found their voice in print and on social media, as their fear of repercussions diminished. The regime received high profile endorsements from the likes of novelist Petina Gappah, Olympic swimmer Kirsty Coventry, and anti-apartheid activist Peter Hain.
But while repressive restrictions were briefly lifted, Zimbabwe’s security forces may have been taking notes — just in case things changes. “One of the narratives that came from the ‘new Zimbabwe’ is that it was more tolerant and open. This has given military intelligence time to identify potential threats. This has translated into the profiling and targeting we have seen,” said Piers Pigou, southern Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Relations between the government and civil society organisations improved noticeably: while senior officials were not exactly embracing activists, there was a real effort to reach out to.
“We thought we are going to engage the government in a different way. We were called by the Ministry of Health and discussed ways of cooperating. This was a first for us,” said Edgar Munatsi, a leader of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR). It didn’t last. “Things changed after the 1 August shooting. We published a report. The relationship switched to the previous relationship.”
On that day, a crowd of angry MDC supporters gathered in central Harare to demonstrate against the results of the election held just days before — an election won in controversial circumstances by the ruling party. The army was despatched to contain the protest, with fatal consequences. By the time the protest was contained, with the aid of tear gas and live ammunition, six people were dead and dozens more injured.
This was just a taste of what was to come.
Last week, soldiers were at the forefront of a brutal nationwide crackdown in response to a ‘national stayaway’ organised by a trade union movement. Under the cover of an internet shutdown, soldiers and plainclothes militias descended on towns and villages across the country, indiscriminately beating people on the streets and dragging people from their homes.
By the end of the week, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum had recorded 844 human rights violations including 12 deaths, 78 gunshot injuries, 242 incidents of assault, torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment; 46 incidents of vandalism and looting; and 466 arbitrary detentions.
But not all the violence was indiscriminate.
“We are seeing targeted attacks. They have a list of people they are looking for. At roadblocks they demand ID and then check names against the list,” said Norman Matara, a medical doctor and treasurer of ZADHR.
Both Munatsi and Mutara have fled Zimbabwe for a neighbouring country, fearing for their lives, and say that the purge has greatly compromised their organisation’s ability to deliver medical services to victims of political violence.
“Most civil society leaders and activists were abducted in the night and we still don’t know where they are,” said Munatsi.
“There does seem to be a concerted effort to wipe out civil society,” said one activist, whose name is withheld for his own safety. He, like hundreds of other civil society leaders, trade unionists and members of the political opposition, has gone into hiding or exile in the face of an unprecedented wave of abductions and detentions that may cripple popular resistance to Mnangagwa’s regime.
As the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission observed: “The Commission received and verified reports that around the country, some Councillors and Members of Parliament of the MDC Alliance as well as civil society leaders in suburbs where the most damage to property occurred were either abducted or arrested from their homes.”
Examples include: Obert Masaraure, President of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, who was allegedly kidnapped from his home on 18 January and has not been seen since; Rashid Mahiya, chairperson of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, whose brother and mother were allegedly abducted and tortured by armed men demanding to know his location; Japhet Moyo, Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary-general, arrested at Robert Mugabe International Airport; and Rusty Markham, MDC MP for Harare North, arrested and now detained at Harare Central police station.
According to a senior MDC official, most of the party’s senior leadership is in hiding, and “five or six MPs have been detained”. While party leader Nelson Chamisa is not officially in hiding, “he is sleeping in a different house every night”, according to the source.
Those that have been arrested are being fast-tracked through the judicial system with unprecedented haste, with some accused being tried and convicted within days of their arrest. “This is something that every lawyer across the country is saying, we have never seen it like this. This speed of trial is virtually unheard of in our criminal practice, and the procedure adopted across the country, of magistrates refusing to hear bail hearings and proceeding directly to trial, is absolutely absurd,” said one human rights lawyer.
“These are terror tactics. The impact has been to send people underground or out of the country. Many are now in hiding. Those that remain in Zimbabwe have gone completely underground, unable to do their work,” said Dewa Mavhinga, the southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
‘A foretaste of what’s to come’
In the government’s own words, there is more trouble ahead. While President Mnangagwa was playing good cop, returning abruptly from his planned trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos and calling for some kind of national dialogue to resolve the crisis, his spokesperson was threatening further violence.
“[The] government will not stand by while such narrow interests play out so violently,” said George Charamba, the president’s spokesperson, speaking to the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper. “The response so far is just a foretaste of things to come.”
As the political crisis deepens, so too do the country’s economic woes. The periodic internet shutdowns over the last week have disrupted businesses and made it even more difficult for households to access food.
In the longer term, the violence is likely to make it even more difficult for the government to access desperately-needed credit facilities from the likes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — credit it needs to make up for an impending grain shortfall that will leave 2.4 million people, or 28% of the population, in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
To face this impending crisis, Zimbabwe needs leadership from the likes of trade unions, NGOs and political parties more than ever. But with so many of those leaders in detention or in hiding, how can the country confront the challenges to come?
Another activist, whose name is also withheld, said she fears that the ongoing purge could cripple further peaceful resistance to the regime. “You know what these guys have done is target people who could have taken the uprising to the next level. This breaks the spirit of people who would want to fight for freedom, because the price is too high. You know if you go to protests then people are going to die.”