Zimbabwe’s “new dispensation” fails to curb human rights abuses
by Desmond Kumbuka (PEN Zimbabwe)
When President Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s new leader on 24 November 2017, one of the key expectations was an immediate end to the impunity and systematic human rights abuses that had become institutionalised under his predecessor President Robert Mugabe’s 37 years of unbroken rule.
Many hoped that random arrests of journalists and abductions of human rights activists by suspected state agents would cease, and that investigations into outstanding cases of unexplained disappearances would be pursued more purposefully and transparently to inspire public confidence in the rule of law.
While some within his party (the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front Zanu-PF) believe the new government deserves more time to fulfil their promises of governance reform and to reorient the system away from past misdeeds, others are convinced that the situation has gone from bad to worse.
They cite a rising number of abductions, as well as increasingly brutal crackdowns by the police and army against demonstrators demanding better wages. Meanwhile, the economy has continued to deteriorate while opposition activists are denouncing a shrinking space for democratic debate.
In its 2018 report, Human Rights Watch noted that throughout the past two years, Mnangagwa and other senior government officials made numerous promises of reform to steer the country away from the Mugabe era.
Despite relatively peaceful national elections endorsed by various observer missions from the European Union, African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in July 2018, disputed results and post-election violence clearly showed that little had changed in Zimbabwe, HRW noted.
Critics of the Mnangagwa administration argue that the “new dispensation” has not taken any tangible steps to demonstrate commitment to accountability, justice for human rights abuses or respect for the rule of law. The widely celebrated departure of President Mugabe and the rise of Mnangagwa to the presidency following the 2018 presidential race, which for the first time since the country’s independence in 1980 did not include Mugabe’s name on the ballot, was followed by a brutal military crackdown on political opponents that left at least six people dead. Although President Mnangagwa subsequently appointed a commission of inquiry, headed by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, into the post-election violence, widespread skepticism greeted its findings, its recommendations remaining largely unfulfilled.
Last January, protests over economic hardships sparked by a sudden rise in fuel prices were met with a brutal backlash by the army and police - 17 people lost their lives, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum. On 18 January 2019, following the protests, the government imposed a total internet shutdown that critics said was designed to blackout social media reports of a violent crackdown on the protests.
It was thus with a measure of irony, HRW observed, that Mnangagwa, despite his own murky record of human rights abuses as Mugabe’s security minister in the early eighties, called on Zimbabweans to “let bygones be bygones” during his inauguration as Executive President on 26 November 2017.
On 27 August 2019, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum launched a special report entitled “The New Deception: What has Changed,” which 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. The launch event included stakeholder discussions focusing on the key highlights of the report, such as the nature and distribution of violations witnessed since November 2017 when Robert Mugabe was overthrown in what was officially termed a military-assisted transition.
Since then, several cases of abductions and violence showcase that little has changed. The widely publicised case of a doctor and labour activist, Dr Peter Magombeyi, whose alleged abduction led to widespread protests by medical staff, was one of several incidents of forced disappearances reported in the local media in recent months. Dr Magombeyi was then the acting President of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA), which stands for improved pay and conditions of service for medical staff. He went missing from his home in the suburb of Budiriro in Harare on 14 September 2019 after being allegedly kidnapped by unidentified armed men.
Although he was found some 30 kms from Harare five days later, media reports said he looked disoriented and in pain, suggesting he might have been tortured. To this day, the exact circumstances of his kidnapping and release remain unclear. The doctor was sent to neighbouring South Africa for medical examination and treatment. Zimbabwe routinely sends patients outside the country for medical attention, a practice that government critics say is reflective of the failure to provide medical care for its citizens at home.
Mnangagwa’s ascendancy to the presidency of Zimbabwe had also rekindled hope in a full-scale investigation into the disappearance of journalist cum political activist Itai Dzamara, abducted from a barbershop in the suburb of Glen View in 2015.
Dzamara became something of a protest icon when he launched a solo “Occupy Africa Unity Square” campaign demanding the resignation of President Mugabe. On several of these ostensibly foolhardy escapades, he was arrested and brutally assaulted by police. Opposition legislators demanded that the police provide periodic updates to Parliament on their investigations but to this day, his family still awaits closure on what happened to him.
Still, the story of Zimbabwe’s lacklustre human rights record would not be complete without the case that came to symbolise ‘triumph over impunity’. On 27 September 2018, the High Court in Harare ordered the state to pay $150,000 to Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) director and pro-democracy campaigner Jestina Mukoko as compensation for unlawful detention, torture and violation of fundamental human rights.
Like Dzamara, Jestina was abducted by unidentified armed men from her home in Norton some 40 kms northwest of Harare on 3 December 2008. Her whereabouts, as well as those of two other ZPP employees, remained unknown until 24 December 2008 when they first appeared before a Harare Magistrate court after weeks of being held incommunicado. Mukoko spent three months in remand prison before being released.
Clearly, Zimbabwe’s human rights challenges go beyond physical crackdowns on journalists and opposition activists; its failure to provide basic needs for its citizens must be cited. A UN official recently noted that Zimbabwe was on the brink of man-made starvation – more than 60 per cent of the 14 million population are considered food insecure, according to recent findings. This is certainly ample evidence that Mnangagwa’s “new dispensation” is far from bringing the change Zimbabweans had hoped for after the 2017 military–assisted transition.