‘It’s the worst since 2008.”
That’s how some Zimbabweans who have spoken to the Mail & Guardian over the past two weeks have described the current crackdown. For them, it is a replay of the post-election violence 11 years ago in which thousands of opposition supporters were detained, tortured, assaulted or killed.
Other Zimbabweans go even further: “It hasn’t been this bad since Gukurahundi.”
In the Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s, state security forces slaughtered thousands of people, largely targeting members of the Ndebele group who were perceived to support Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union, the only real opposition to Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union. Estimates of the death toll range from 20 000 to 36 000 people.
Some of the same men alleged to be responsible for the killings — men like Lands Minister Perence Shiri, Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, and yes, even President Emmerson Mnangagwa — are still in power.
It is still too soon to understand fully the extent of the 2019 crackdown, and there is little reliable information available. But the mere fact that so many Zimbabweans are reaching for comparisons such as 2008 and Gukurahundi should be enough to raise alarm bells — especially when these warnings come from people who have lived through both of those dark periods in their country’s history.
This bleak assessment is supported by the few reputable statistics that have emerged. At least 12 people are thought to have been killed in the violence, and hundreds of others injured. About 1 000 people have been arrested and are being processed in the courts.
The crackdown began, supposedly, in response to popular protests against the imposition of a fuel tax. But the sheer scale of the operation, in its third week now, suggests that it was planned well in advance. It takes careful planning to conduct simultaneous military operations in towns across the country and to organise the targeted detentions and disappearances of community leaders, activists, unionists and opposition party members.
This combination of terror and purge has crippled popular resistance to the government — for now, at least.
It is also a major reason it has been so hard to gather accurate information: many of the people who would usually be raising the alarm have been forcefully prevented from doing so.
From Mnangagwa’s perspective, the timing of the crackdown is no accident. Zimbabwe has been staggering through a slow-motion economic crisis for the past year, and now the government is broke. This is likely to be compounded by shortfalls in agricultural production, which are projected to leave at least 2.4-million people in need of emergency food aid within the next few months, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Mnangagwa’s government simply does not have the foreign exchange reserves to purchase that food aid. Tobacco sales, expected to begin sometime between mid-February and mid-March, may also be negatively impacted by the poor climatic conditions, putting the exchequer under even more pressure.
How will the government pay its civil servants, who are threatening to go on strike? How will the government pay its soldiers? How will it feed its people? For any would-be autocrat, this last question is always the most crucial: the link between hunger and revolution is as old as civilisation itself.
The crackdown is the Mnangagwa regime’s attempt to pre-empt any potential revolution.
As terrifying as Mnangagwa’s police and soldiers may be, it is clear that Mnangagwa and his allies are just as terrified — and that they will spare no violence in their efforts to protect themselves.