#Coup17: Human rights situation deteriorating

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A soldier assaults a foreign journalist as the army dispersed protesters in Harare on Wednesday.

The majority of Zimbabweans celebrated when the army forced the late former president Robert Mugabe out of office in November 2017. The coup came after the purging of the then vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa from the executive and from his party, Zanu PF, on allegations of disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness, unreliability and incompetence.

After he fled the country to safety on November 8 2017, citizens thought that was the end of the vice-president’s political career. Little did people know that this was the beginning of the end of an era.

The swelling crowd at the swearing-in ceremony represented the expectations, goodwill and hopes of citizens. They yearned for an economic turnaround. President Mnangagwa’s speech gave Zimbabweans what they wanted to hear but has remained rhetoric. Citizens were expectant of the restoration of confidence in the banking system, easing of liquidity challenges, repairing and expanding of the physical and social infrastructure for economic growth, employment creation, equity, health, shelter, clean water, education and other key social services.

The first 100 days of the post-coup administration set targets with pronouncement of “business unusual”. Through different lenses; some applauded and claimed they could see progress, while for others it passed as a veneer. The disappearance of the police from the roads was hailed as they had become notorious for harassing motorists and soliciting bribes.

“Zero tolerance” to corruption has not achieved much besides appearing like a pointless witch-hunt while the real culprits are conveniently avoided in the blitz and those caught have benefitted from “catch and release”. The inaction against corruption has also given rise to artisanal miners widely known as MaShurugwi being a law unto themselves as they are said to be linked to politicians in high office, making it impossible for the police to reign in the perpetrators.

“After 100 days of action we are on the right path and will keep working to increase that pace of reform,” the president said.

Welshman Ncube, former Industry minister and opposition MDC deputy president, said government had the right rhetoric, and no action to back it. The military remained deployed in various positions of government ushering in a military state and making it impossible to foster a culture of constitutionalism.

The Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) extensively reported on widespread intimidation and harassment in the run up to the 2018 elections. Threats of using the biometric voter registration (BVR) to sniff out dissenting voices, the intricate dandemutande (spider web) system, the partisan distribution of food and agricultural inputs forced people to act with their tummies, culminating in assisted voting, and “paddocking” of the electorate in the polls at the behest of traditional leaders and other ruling party functionaries pervaded the electoral environment.

Police responded to some reports but some citizens were not confident and did not feel safe reporting and continue living in the same communities. While the 2018 elections had many boxes ticked unlike past polls, numerous challenges left the polls shy of freeness and fairness. For the first time since 2002, international election observers were invited.

Immediately after the elections, the situation changed for the worst and completely transformed the environment although citizens expected to see a turnaround and the writing of a new narrative.

When on August 1 2018 supporters of the MDC Alliance protested the perceived delay in the announcement of presidential results, the state response was baffling. The police had responded to the rowdy violent crowds who put citizens and property at risk, but in the melee military trucks started rolling in the streets of Harare.

As people were trying to come to grips with the new phenomenon, in no time blood was spilt as six civilians were shot dead. Most of the victims were shot in the back, evidence they were retreating and therefore were not a threat; there was no need to use live ammunition.

While the police argue they needed reinforcement to control the protestors, the disproportionate force used on civilians leaving many others with life changing injuries was unwarranted.

In subsequent days a witch-hunt of suspected ringleaders of the MDC Alliance protests was launched in high-density areas of Harare. The affected had the little courage and confidence gathered in prior months under the illusion they could enjoy rights enshrined in the constitution excavated and replaced by fear. Most victims were reduced to sharing their harrowing ordeals on condition there would be no publicity, they feared reprisals.

Citizens witnessed military vehicles with personnel who meted out punishment. Bars and nightclubs were targeted by the state violence. The Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) denied involvement, labelling the perpetrators “rogue” elements. Immediately afterwards, shocking details of stolen military equipment and uniforms started making the rounds.

As civil society organisations (CSOs) revealed the ghastly incidents, state media sought to target and discredit CSOs as the Motlanthe Commission of Inquiry into the August 1 shootings began its work. The Motlanthe commission report was received by Mnangagwa in December 2018.

However, before neither the ink on the report could dry nor the recommendations implemented, the military had been deployed again to quell protests against the rising cost of living triggered by increases in the cost of fuel announced by the president. A total of 17 civilians were killed when live ammunition was used as disproportionate force against protestors was again directed at the unarmed.

Although some protesters looted shops, burnt property, violently forced others to participate and attacked and killed a police officer in Bulawayo, the force used by the military was unjustifiable. The military are not trained in crowd control; it is the mandate of the police, according to the constitution. The highest number of people were detained in dragnet arrests including juveniles, some were assaulted, tortured and jailed.

When the mantra “Zimbabwe is open for business” reverberated, human rights defenders felt it would go up in smoke if Zimbabwe was not open for enjoyment of civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Citizens are not enjoying their civil and political, socio economic, cultural and environmental rights.

The Zimbabwe Peace Project is concerned with the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. There have been arbitrary arrests of dissenters who have been charged with subverting a constitutionally elected government.

It is in this period that the highest number of cases of subversion against opposition and civil society representatives have been recorded standing at around 22.

The case of the “Maldives 7” is one that has hit the headlines since May when those returning from a workshop in the Maldives were arrested at the Robert Mugabe International Airport. The year 2019 has seen abductions and torture spiking, from the protests in January and in response to a call to demonstrate by the MDC in August.

History is littered even in court papers of the hand of the state in abductions. Hence the reason to believe the recent abductions are from the same perpetrators. The government’s attempts to dismiss the abductions and torture allegations as fake and injuries sustained by victims as self-inflicted to soil the image of the country fail to cut it.

With spirited efforts to discredit the claims of abductions as fake the state mentions a third force in abductions. If a third force exists, then abductions are not fake, the state has an obligation to ensure the security of citizens. It is incumbent on the state to unmask and disarm the so-called third force.

Twenty-four months after the coup, freedoms of expression, association and assembly are fast curtailed by crimes of insulting the office and the person of the President. For electing to freely associate and assemble, citizens are punished with discrimination when food and other aid are distributed.

Zimbabwe faces its most dire socio- economic rights situation; citizens failing to access proper health services, potable water. Since the coup, doctors and those in the health sector have downed tools more than twice as they demand a better living wage and equipment and medicines to enable saving of lives.

Junior doctors have downed tools since September 3, resulting in citizens failing to access proper medical services hence loss of life. Government has fired more than 211 junior doctors. The action fails to tackle the root causes, which have affected not only doctors.

Water shortages have resulted in outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. The impasse in health delivery could spell disaster if such outbreaks were to strike again. Where boreholes have been sunk, communities spend hours in queues stretching into the dead of night and many people fail to access the minimum 50 litres per day per person stipulated by World Health Organisation.

Women and girls face the risk of being sexually assaulted at night. There is brisk business in water for young men who crowd the boreholes and sell a 20-litre bucket for between ZW$2 and ZW$4. This means women and girls are spending even longer hours waiting to get to the watering hole.

The situation of vulnerable groups such as persons with disability, the chronically ill, the elderly, women and young men is desperate.

Government acknowledges that there are challenges in the country but continues to fail to implement corrective measures to effectively contain the years of suffering endured by the citizens. Matters are not helped by the progressive emasculation of some institutions like the judiciary that has the important role of curbing executive excesses. With the raining of statutory instruments, significant questions arise as to whether the power of the legislature has been usurped, meaning that the integral separation of powers ceases to work.

Non-state actors like the media, non-governmental organisations, cultural and religious institutions have laboured under the yoke of state-sanctioned repression in its many forms, ranging from intimidation, smear campaigns, detentions, raids, abductions, threats of deregistration and closures, financial restrictions and in many cases, torture and extrajudicial killings.

These excesses are conducted under the veneer of a legal framework designed to justify them, notwithstanding the protections contained in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

Twenty-four months after November 2017, people’s hopes have been dashed but there are steps that can be taken urgently to salvage the situation before the country sinks deeper into crisis:

To accept and acknowledge the existence of a crisis that requires urgent attention;

Zimbabweans broadly and inclusively have to urgently and deliberately build bridges and dialogue frankly about issues of governance and politics affecting the nation rather than aim at symptoms;

The military have to go back to the barracks where they belong;

A respect of separation of powers to avoid interference and the usurping of powers by the executive;
Healing of citizens is urgent; and

Reforms political, electoral, economic and social are overdue and government needs to move beyond rhetoric without accompanying action.

Jestina Mukoko is executive director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a human rights and advocacy organisation.

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