BY Panashe Chigumadze
On July 20, police in Zimbabwe arrested and detained journalist Hopewell Chin’ono. The prominent investigative reporter had blown the whistle on a $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 yesterday. Both men are accused of inciting public violence.
On the eve of Chin’ono and Ngarivhume’s July 22 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 3 092 cases and 53 deaths as of Thursday night.
In some countries, the tightening of restrictions in response to a rise in cases might be welcome 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 a convenient cover to loot funds, clamp down on Press freedoms, violate human rights, and arrest activists.a
Perhaps most worryingly, it has used the lockdown period to quietly amend the Constitution to consolidate Executive powers without input from citizens.
This is contrary to Mnangagwa’s promises on assuming power in November 2017, following the late former President Robert Mugabe’s overthrow.
At that time, Mnangagwa 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 published a series of Facebook posts outlining the alleged connection between the President’s son Collins Mnangagwa and Drax International, a United Arab Emirates-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 contract 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 — is yet to be tried.
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 shortage of personal protective equipment.
On July 6, nurses again staged protests to demand the payment of their salaries in US dollars. Thirteen of them were arrested on allegations of contravening 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 lack of public consultation regarding the changes, they were charged with inciting public violence.
Kwekweza was then arrested for a second time on July 15 after voicing her disapproval of government’s actions.
Overall, more than 105 000 people have been arrested in Zimbabwe since March for allegedly 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 Joanah Mamombe along with activists Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova — were abducted after attending a demonstration.
Almost 48 hours later, they were found dumped at a marketplace and had to receive medical treatment for multiple injuries.
Shocking videos circulated of the traumatised women describing how they were 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”.
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 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 precious belongings and go deeper into debt just to eat.
At worst, many Zimbabweans are simply going without food. 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 in the military, police and Central Intelligence Organisation it uses to suppress dissent is 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 allow them the right to freely protest.
This has led security chiefs to warn against insubordination and plead for loyalty. In a statement last week, police spokesperson 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.
Instead of thinking of ways to ensure the wellbeing of their citizens during this pandemic, Zanu PF sleeps with one eye open, dreaming how best it can crush them.
Under the weight of Zanu PF’s ever repressive boot, journalists can’t breathe, 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 respond to the needs of its people, it will soon face its greatest threat yet.
lPanashe Chigumadzi is an essayist and novelist born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa.