President Robert Mugabe’s new role as African Union chairman drew significant international media attention.
But when I was in Harare last week, much of the conversation from Zimbabweans and friends of Zimbabwe was about what Mugabe, after his more than 30 years in power, should do with his remaining time as president. As with charity, doing the right thing begins at home.
In his first interview after the AU election in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Mugabe said his focus for the coming year will be uplifting African people from poverty.
Meanwhile, victims of the Tokwe-Mukorsi floods in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province last year were marking the anniversary of the disaster. They may have found a grim irony in his pronouncements.
At the time of the flooding, Mugabe declared a national emergency and pledged to relocate over 20 000 victims and provide humanitarian assistance to uplift them from the tragedy. One year on, a Human Rights Watch investigation and a new report have found out the flood victims remain homeless, landless and utterly destitute. In fact, the entire situation surrounding the Tokwe-Mukorsi flooding and the treatment of those displaced has been fraught with multiple human rights abuses.
The dam, under construction since 1998, is intended to provide irrigation and electricity to communities in the semi-arid southern Masvingo province. Communities that would potentially be affected by the dam construction had been awaiting a response for their request for the government to provide compensation for the loss of their property and/ or relocation to a place where they could resume their lives and livelihoods.
Then suddenly last February, the dam basin flooded following heavy rains. Speaking anonymously, engineers familiar with the construction of Tokwe-Mukorsi dam have said that the flooding could have been easily prevented or at least minimised by opening floodgates.
Shortly after the flooding, the Zimbabwe army and the Civil Protection Unit moved in and relocated over 20 000 people, some of whom lived far from the flooded basin. In the course of the relocation, some of the people had to abandon their land and livelihoods, including their cattle.
They were temporarily settled at Chingwizi camp on the Nuanetsi Ranch in Masvingo’s Mwenezi district and promised humanitarian assistance, adequate compensation and resettlement on a five-hectare plot of land per family. But that did not happen. Instead, they were ordered to move to a planned commercial sugarcane plantation in a different part of the same ranch.
Each family was given only a one-hectare plot, very small to support a family. The quality of the land does not allow them to grow multiple crops, which prevented them from growing crops of their choice, but curiously only sugarcane to supply a government planned ethanol project. To make matters worse, they have found out that the actual ownership of the land is in dispute.
While they were still in the camp, last August, protests erupted when the government took action to forcibly close the camp and coerce the displaced people into accepting the one-hectare settlement plan. The government said it would only continue the donor-financed humanitarian assistance they had been getting if they accepted the resettlement plan.
The government responded by sending in over 200 anti-riot police to quell the protests indiscriminately beating and arresting close to 300 people, most of them men. Then the police forced the women in the camp, including the sick and disabled, to sit in the sun all day without access to toilets for two consecutive days as punishment for being “rebellious” against government plans. Twenty-nine of those arrested faced criminal charges though 25 were later freed. On January 27, the remaining four of the community leaders, including Mike Mudyanembwa, chairman of the Chingwizi Camp Community Committee, were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
The failure of the government to assist and protect internally-displaced people in rural parts of the country shows that there is a long way to go before Zimbabweans can consider themselves uplifted. In fact, the heavy-handed crackdown on the protests, including the deliberate targeting of the community’s human rights defenders with criminal charges, is a major human rights tragedy for Zimbabwe and emblematic of the failure of the country’s rule of law institutions to protect citizens.
If Mugabe is committed to uplifting Africans from poverty, he should begin by dealing fairly with the Tokwe-Mukorsi flood victims. His government needs to see that they get adequate compensation for their losses and relocation to a secure place where they can reasonably resume their lives. The government needs to free the four community human rights defenders and to hold the abusers of the protesting flood victims to account.
Bekele is Africa director at Human Rights Watch.