Passport snatch will have ‘chilling’ effect

Trevor Ncube

WHEN I woke up in Johannesburg last Thursday morning I was surprised to discover that the Australian government had included my name on a list of over 120 Zimbabweans barred from doing business

with that country’s Reserve Bank for allegedly aiding and abetting President Robert Mugabe’s government.


By the time I boarded the plane heading for my brother’s wedding in Bulawayo, the Australians had already called to apologise for the error and I promptly put the matter behind me. The truth of the matter is that being included on the Australian list never bothered me for a moment. My sense was that it is the prerogative of the Australians to decide who is allowed to visit their country and who is not.


On arrival at Bulawayo airport on Thursday afternoon I discovered that I was on another list – this one comprising 17 Zimbabweans whose passports had been invalidated and were due to be withdrawn. I was to learn the following day that the instruction to withdraw and invalidate my passport was made by Registrar-General Tobaiwa Mudede in a letter dated November 24 addressed to Chief Immigration Officer Elasto Mugwadi. Mugwadi then sent out a circular four days later to all ports of entry.


On Wednesday my lawyers managed to recover my passport after I made a High Court application for its return. The application asserts that the action was unlawful, a violation of the rules of natural justice, and lacked procedural fairness.


The confiscation of the passport was also grossly unreasonable and irrational. Assuming the impounding of the passport was based on things I have written or said on what is happening in Zimbabwe, this action violates my freedom of thought and expression. The fact that I found myself under “country arrest” meant that my constitutional right to freedom of movement was severely vitiated.


I must hasten to add that the actual seizure of my passport was effected by a youthful member of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) who identified himself to me. And because of internal divisions within President Robert Mugabe’s spooks, many have been talking to me and my colleagues. The reasons for this abuse of authority and heavy-handed action are beginning to emerge.


Apparently the Mediagate scandal uncovered by Dumisani Muleya at the Zimbabwe Independent a few months ago is at the heart of the confiscation of my passport. In a nutshell, the exposé revealed that the CIO had taken over three privately-owned newspapers, namely the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the Financial Gazette, leaving the Zimbabwe Independent and the Standard as the only independent newspapers in the country.


The Mediagate exposé was a big blow to the CIO’s ability to continue to use public funds to finance the Mirror newspapers. And this has put the director-general of the CIO, Brigadier Happyton Bonyongwe, the author of this media strategy, in a pickle.


The Mediagate strategy is part of the CIO’s broad plan codenamed Project October whose two main objectives are to ensure that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is severely weakened and that there should not be any privately-owned newspaper group in the country by 2010, thus ensuring the only voice heard across the land is President Mugabe’s.


Zanu PF intends to postpone the presidential election due in 2008 to 2010 through a constitutional amendment which is expected soon. To all intents and purposes, they have achieved the first objective as the MDC is hopelessly divided and they are now working on the second. My continued ownership of the Independent and Standard stands in the way of achieving this second goal.


Apart from being an autocratic approach to dealing with perceived critics and instilling a climate of fear across the country, the confiscation of my passport is thus expected to deliver on the second objective of winning the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans through a sycophantic and pliant media.

My sources tell me that the thinking within the CIO is that I have a lot to lose by staying in the country without a passport and that I will be forced to flee the country illegally. If I did that I would be termed a “fugitive”, paving the way for a takeover of my businesses. They would have killed two birds with one stone, that is settling their grudge over the Mediagate story and muzzling the last private newspapers in the country.


With their mission accomplished, the CIO, who are effectively running this country following the failure of civilian structures and the deep divisions within the ruling party and the government over the succession issue, would be well placed to play king-makers and anoint a candidate of their choice to succeed Mugabe.


The problem with CIO newspaper ownership is that it is calculated to serve factional interests in Zanu PF and not the national good. This is why it has created divisions in cabinet, the ruling party and government. The whole thing is about rigidly controlling the media, not just to win hearts and minds, but specifically to influence the outcome of the Mugabe succession struggle.


The government has increasingly become a quasi-military dictatorship both in form and substance. Currently seven members of Mugabe’s cabinet are former military or intelligence strongmen. Of the 31 key government institutions or parastatals, 13 are headed by former military or intelligence officers. These include the National Parks, Prison Services, the Grain Marketing Board, and the CIO itself. Government bureaucracy, including electoral supervision, is now run by the army. We have even seen the military being deployed to implement command agriculture – Operation Maguta – to deal with food shortages.


It must be pointed out that the two men at the centre of the seizure of my passport, Mugwadi and Mudede, work in cahoots with the military and intelligence structures that meet every week under the auspices of the Joint Operations Committee (JOC) to discuss security issues.


Bonyongwe, whose media department compiled the list of 17 names, is a rising star in this gang. He has become even more powerful against the backdrop of the succession squabbles in the ruling party.


While I have not officially been given the reasons for the seizure of my passport, there is speculation that the list of 17, believed to be a prelude to a longer list of 64 which Mugabe ordered to be drawn up at his party’s recent conference, is perhaps the first salvo in implementing the provisions of Constitutional Amendment No 17 which gives the government power to seize the passports of people it perceives as “threatening the interests of the state”.


The problem is that currently there is no enabling legislation to implement this Orwellian provision. But then laws are not usually allowed to stand in the way of Mugabe’s grand political designs.


There is evidence already that the seizure of my passport has had the desired result across the country and on Zimbabweans living abroad. Many in and outside the country will be terrified to speak out against current abuses for fear of losing their passports. Many now fear coming home for Christmas to see their loved ones because there is no guarantee that they will not lose their passports on arrival.


While terribly inconvenienced by the seizure of my passport, I am not at all intimidated. I will always exercise my birthright to speak out against misrule and injustice. A passport cannot be used as a gagging instrument.


I shall not be silenced by a regime whose leadership and policy failures have reduced Zimbabwe to a wasteland and which wants to blame everybody but itself for the colossal disaster it has caused through its corrupt and incompetent rule.

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