On 20 July, police in Zimbabwe arrested and detained the journalist Hopewell Chin’ono. The prominent investigative reporter had blown the whistle on $60 million corruption scandal in June. They also detained Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of Transform Zimbabwe, a political group spearheading plans for a national anti-corruption protest scheduled for 31 July. Both men are accused of inciting public violence.
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 purportedly in response to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases. Officially, Zimbabwe has recorded 2,879 cases and 41 deaths to date.
In some countries, the tightening of restrictions in response to a rise in cases might be welcomed or at least tolerated. In Zimbabwe, they are deeply worrying. Since emergency regulations were imposed in March, the ruling ZANU-PF has used COVID-19 as convenient cover to loot funds, clamp down on press freedoms, violate human rights, and arrest activists. Perhaps most worryingly, it has used the lockdown period to quietly amend the constitution to consolidate executive powers without input from citizens.
This is a long way from Mnangagwa’s promises on assuming power in November 2017, following Robert Mugabe’s overthrow. At that time, the new president declared a “new dispensation”, promising economic revival and democratic reforms. He had already reneged on these vows long before the coronavirus reached Zimbabwe, but the pandemic has made matters worse.
Chin’ono is the latest of six journalists arrested in Zimbabwe since March. In June, he had published a series of Facebook posts outlining alleged connections between the president’s son Collins Mnangagwa and Drax International, a UAE-based company that was awarded a $60 million contract to supply COVID-19 test kits and medical equipment. Soon after posting the information, Chin’ono said that he feared for his life, after being singled out for criticism by the ruling party.
Chin’ono’s exposé led to the contract’s cancellation as well as the arrest and dismissal of Health Minister Obadiah Moyo. The minister – the second in Mnangagwa’s cabinet to be arrested over high-level corruption claims – will appear in court on 31 July. Protests over corruption and the deepening economic crisis have been organised for the same day by the opposition, trade unions and civil society organisations. It may be a turning point for Zimbabwe.
Crisis and crackdown
This episode comes during a period of high tensions for a variety of reasons. Economically, the country is in crisis. The inflation rate, for instance, is currently over 750%, reviving memories of the late-2000s when hyperinflation wiped out savings and eventually forced Zimbabwe to abandon its currency in favour of the US dollar.
Frustrations are also rising over the government’s management of the health sector. Days after the first COVID-19 death in March, doctors and nurses downed tools over the shortage of personal protective equipment. On 6 July, nurses again staged protests to demand the payment of their salaries in US dollars. 13 of them were arrested on allegations that they had contravened lockdown regulations.
Many people have also been arrested protesting the government’s COVID-19 response as well as ZANU-PF’s ominous decision to use the lockdown period to push through constitutional amendments that effectively give the president the authority to do as he pleases. When activists Namatai Kwekweza and Vongai Zimudzi tried to hand over a petition to Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi, pointing out the lack of public consultation regarding the changes, they were charged with inciting public violence. Kwekweza was then arrested for a second time on 15 July after voicing her disapproval of the government’s actions.
Overall, more than 105,000 people have been arrested in Zimbabwe since March for allegedly for violating lockdown regulations. Several of them have been targeted after joining protests or speaking out. The most egregious instance of this pattern occurred in June when three women – opposition MP Joana Mamombe along with activists Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova – were abducted after attending a demonstration. Almost 48 hours later, they were found dumped in a marketplace and had to receive hospital treatment for multiple injuries. Shocking videos circulated of the traumatised women describing being taken out of town by unidentified men who beat and sexually assaulted them. Instead of investigating their claims, the state re-arrested them for an “alleged fake abduction report”.
“ZANU-PF sleeps with one eye open”
The latest arrests of Chin’ono and Ngarivhume have drawn worldwide condemnation. But the government remains defiant, with ZANU-PF spokesperson Patrick Chinamasa warning: “We remain vigilant against the machinations of the enemy and they have been very intensified in recent weeks. ZANU-PF sleeps with one eye open.”
Yet again, the Zimbabwean government has failed to acknowledge that the greatest threat they face is of their own making – through their continued looting, economic mismanagement and repressiveness. What they should be keeping their eyes on is how hyperinflation has made basic staples unaffordable for most Zimbabweans, who are now having to sell off precious belongings and go deeper into debt just to eat. At worst, many Zimbabweans are simply going without. Even before COVID-19 hit, Zimbabwe faced both economic and hunger crises affecting people in both urban and rural areas.
ZANU-PF’s self-made crisis is heightened by the fact that the rank and file it relies on the repress popular dissent – in the military, police and Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) – are suffering from the very same economic burden as their fellow citizens. Recognising this, protesters are calling on ordinary members of the military, police, air force and prison service to disobey orders ahead of the 31 July demonstration.
This has led security chiefs to warn against insubordination and plead for loyalty. In a statement last week, Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) assistant commissioner Paul Nyathi said:“We have noted with concern recent social media postings urging members to disregard lawful orders, commands and instructions given by their commanders while performing duty”. He urged officers to ignore what he called attempts to “cause alarm, despondency and divide the security services”.
Corrupt and clueless
As it becomes more desperate, the post-Mugabe government has used the pandemic to further undermine the democratic freedoms and reforms it promised on assuming power. However, just like – or perhaps even worse than the government of his predecessor – Mnangagwa’s “new dispensation” is corrupt and clueless when it comes to the economy and social welfare yet extremely imaginative when it comes to repressing dissent and looting coffers. Instead of thinking of ways to ensure the wellbeing of their citizens during this pandemic, ZANU-PF sleeps with one eye open, dreaming up better ways to crush them.
Under the weight of ZANU-PF’s ever repressive boot, journalists can’t breath, activists can’t breathe, lawyers can’t breathe, nurses can’t breathe, teachers can’t breathe, trade unionists can’t breathe, the opposition can’t breathe and ordinary citizens can’t breathe. Perhaps most worryingly for the government, even their own security forces can’t breathe as they are deployed to crush their fellow citizens’ gasps for air.
Unless the Zimbabwean state stops its looting, intimidation and suppression of dissent and finally response to the needs of its people, it will soon face its greatest threat yet.