WHEN President Emmerson Mnangagwa came into office in November 2017, the bar was very low. The rule of law, constitutionalism and human rights had passed through the hands of none other than Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa seemed to have accurately read the situation, immediately promising to be “the President of all citizens regardless of colour, creed, religion, tribe, totem or political affiliation” in his November 24, 2017, acceptance speech. “Above all, we must always remember and realise that we hold and run this country in trust”, he said.
Musa Kika :Lawyer
How we moved from this to his infamous “we will keep ruling while you continue barking”, is quite easy to understand if one tracks the monumental vacillation and the broken promises within the administration’s short three-year life.
Ironically, Mnangagwa himself said in his inaugural speech as State President that: “I recognise that the urgent tasks that beckon will not be accomplished through speeches, necessary as these may be.”
On the anniversary of the coup government’s ascendance to power, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the correlation of the speech and deeds.
Following a failed rebranding campaign and unmet rhetoric of economic growth, the system seems back to propaganda: State broadcasters now blast liberation war songs. In spite of stating as early into his tenure as January 2018 that Zimbabweans should stop complaining about the impact of Western sanctions on the country and instead focus on creatively leveraging on available human and natural resources to steer growth and development, the system is now back at blaming sanctions, with renewed vigour. This is nothing new; we have always blamed everything and anything for our misfortunes but ourselves.
Condemned by his own words
Lest we be ostracised as merchants of the unsavoury, we will judge the man by his own words, spoken at both his inaugurations of November 24, 2017 and August 26, 2018.
“I intend to approach security issues from a broad human, physical and social perspective. All citizens must feel secure and enjoy a sense of belonging in the Land”.
What has manifested instead is the use of force as a coercive tool to replace free consent of the citizens in governance. President Mugabe had systematically militarised parastatals, government and agencies of the State over time, but this has been brought to new and overt heights under Mnangagwa. Within a period of two years, the army was deployed at least three times onto the streets, in two cases — August 1, 2018 and January 2019 — with fatal consequences.
“My government will work towards ensuring that the pillars of the State assuring democracy in our land are strengthened and respected” and “my government is unwavering in its commitment to constitutionalism, entrenching the rule of law, the principle of separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary”, we were assured.
The reality is amendments to the constitution that cut back on democratic consolidation, with a running theme of concentrating power in the hands of the executive and eliminating checks and balances. Recent developments have put into the open concerns long raised regarding the independence of the judiciary. Accountability has been shunned, initially under much talk of letting bygones be bygones. That now seems to in fact be self-serving preservation and insulation from accountability. That impunity, regrettably but predictably, encourages more infractions today.
“Here at home, we must, however, appreciate the fact that over the years, our domestic politics had become poisoned, rancorous and polarising. My goal is to preside over a polity and run an administration that recognises strength in our diversity as a people”. Just how the administration is irked by dissent is chillingly obvious, a far cry from the promise that “I am your listening President, a servant leader”.
The manipulation of the criminal justice system to punish dissent has been elevated, with the denial of bail in questionable circumstances, lengthy detentions without trial, and arresting victims for “false reporting”.
People like Hopewell Chin’ono and Joanna Mamombe are being treated as examples for would-be dissenters. This, coming after a promise of “(My) commitment to open up the democratic space (…) A path full of freedoms, democracy, transparency, love and harmony. A path of dialogue and debate”.
What an acknowledgement that hitherto, democratic space had been closed. Instead, a self-service Polad is set-up, and civil society is served with a raft of laws that will sooner rather than later criminalise their very operations.
When the 2018 harmonised elections were ahead of us, the relatively peaceful environment gave hope to many in genuine electoral contestation and suffrage by the Zimbabwean peoples. It is quite apparent that was all for the cameras, the international stage and the imaging.
In 2018, the government then took pride in itself for bringing international election observers from world over impressing that Zimbabwe had nothing to hide. Two years later, after squandering goodwill and turning those who had bought his reformist rhetoric against him, the President now cites the recent Malawi Presidential elections which was held in the midst of Covid-19 and without foreign election observers to say that “This (…) makes us think whether it is still necessary for Sadc countries to look for supervision from across oceans. It is a question which we are interrogating”. That is more a statement of intend than anything. There might not be foreign election observers in 2023. Meanwhile, by-elections are suspended, Covid-19 as cover.
“Never again should the circumstances that have put Zimbabwe in an unfavourable position be allowed to recur or overshadow its prospects”, we were told. Zimbabwe’s history shows repulsion to dissent. But this is repeating itself.
A total of 106 abductions have thus far been recorded since November 2017, 64 in 2019 alone. Within a period of two years, about 25 extra-judicial killings have been recorded. To the government, this is all the work of an invisible and unidentified “third force”. Either that, or the abductions are “fake”. Still, the President would have us believe that even in heaven there is no government as good as his!
The language of hate that has condemned this country to violence in the past, remains alive. When the Minister of Information, Publicity, and Broadcasting Services Monica Mutsvangwa gave an address in response to the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference’s (ZCBC) pastoral letter in which the ZCBC called upon the government to urgently address the challenges facing the country, she launched a tribal attack against Archbishop Ndlovu and used phrases such as “narrow and evil-minded” among other derogatory terms to describe the Catholic Bishops.
When we thought the President would reprimand her, he instead addressed the nation in August 2020 and warned that he would “flush out” opponents, identified as “bad apples”. The main opposition political party was labelled a “terrorist” organisation. Terrorist: the word used against Nelson Mandela in his liberation days. How reminiscent.
Post-haste, the promises of a “new dispensation” have disappeared, and the patterns of misgovernance and human rights abuse that characterised Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe’s rule have re-emerged, with renewed vigour.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum’s 2019 report titled The New Deception: What has Changed? shows that the record of the new dispensation in upholding human rights, contrary to the government’s rhetoric, is a downgrade from the Robert Mugabe’s years. Both the forum’s 2018 and 2019 State of Human Rights reports have similar reviews.
In 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association’s report following a visit to Zimbabwe concluded that there is “a serious deterioration of the political, economic and social environment since August 2018”.
Prior to that, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to food had concluded after his visit in 2019 that about half the population is in danger of starvation and in need of food aid. Thus far in 2020 we have seen at least two statements from the UN on Zimbabwe. On June 10, 2020, UN human rights experts called on Zimbabwe “to immediately end a reported pattern of disappearances and torture that appear aimed at suppressing protests and dissent”.
This was followed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ statement on July 24, 2020 calling for respect for human rights in the country. On August 7, 2020 we also saw the chairperson of the African Union Commission issuing a statement encouraging the government of Zimbabwe to uphold the rule of law and allowing for freedom of the media, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and the right to information. All this is a testament to the crisis in governance and human rights that the government so vociferously denies.
Looking at the promises made, how quickly things degenerated and the naked intolerance to dissent now displayed, it sounds safe to conclude that the promises were in fact never sincere.
The government is in self-reservation mode, a battle to see another day. Whatever stands in its way is to be destroyed – including human rights. For human rights, a darker cloud hangs, even as we come from a dark past. But for true believers in development, human rights can never be a sideshow. So we soldier on.
Kika is a human rights and constitutional lawyer and is the executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.