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Repression: When Zim stops pretending to be a democracy

Harare-based lawyer Kudzai Kadzere shows his had in a plaster after he was assaulted by the police recently.

On Saturday January 14, Harare-based lawyer Kudzai Kadzere was brutally beaten by members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), leaving him with a fractured arm that required surgery.

Images shared online show a long run of stitches up the inside of his arm and across his wrist, forming a bloody L shape.

His “crime” was that he did his job by representing 24 members of the opposition political party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), who had been arrested for allegedly holding an illegal meeting.

“My car was blocked by riot police who started beating me … It’s sad that not only my rights have been infringed (on), but also the rights of my clients to access their lawyer,” Kadzere says.

The next day, tragedy turned into a farce. Kadzere was arrested when he went to report the assault. Despite having visited the police station voluntarily, he was accused of having escaped from lawful custody. The thuggish treatment of Kadzere is depressing, but not surprising.

No one who has been watching Zimbabwe in recent months would have expected anything else. Ahead of the general elections later this year, the government is reverting to its old ways. Behind in the polls, with limited support even within his party and out of fresh ideas, President Emmerson Mnangagwa knows that only intimidation and electoral manipulation will keep him in power.

With a government that has given up on trying to hide its authoritarian foundations, 2023 is likely to be the country’s worst election for the next 15 years.

No more pretending

The squalid autocracy that President Mnangagwa presides over couldn’t be more different from the Zimbabwe he promised to create. Ahead of the 2018 general election, Mnangagwa pledged to usher in a new period of democracy and development distinguished by “free and fair” elections. The dark days experienced under his predecessor, Robert Mugabe, would be confined to the dustbin of history, as the country opened up both politically and economically.

Desperate to persuade Zimbabwean voters and international partners to overlook his violent past, Mnangagwa’s campaign even put up posters proclaiming his commitment to good governance and human rights.

However, this was little more than a masquerade, a piece of political theatre that was not even sustained through the election period itself.

When opposition supporters gathered to protest against delays in announcing the presidential results and the manipulation of the process, some of the soldiers deployed to disperse them opened fire. Six people were killed. A new wave of intimidation of opposition leaders and activists followed and still exists today.

One of the main reasons for this shift in approach is that Mnangagwa’s confidence tricks didn’t work. His government failed to secure the international investment it needed, didn’t manage to remove sanctions, and has proved unable to provide even the most basic services to its citizens.

In turn, the combination of broken promises, economic hardship and rampant corruption has further undermined government support.

According to the widely respected Afrobarometer survey, trust in the ruling party declined from 58% to 44% between 2017 and March/April 2022.

This fall went hand-in-hand with a rise in support for the main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, and CCC, a new political vehicle built out of the ashes of the Movement for Democratic Change.

Despite continuous government efforts to use divide-and-rule strategies to undermine opposition unity, the 2022 poll revealed that Chamisa was the most popular candidate for president, leading Mnangagwa by 3%.

This may not sound like a big gap, but it was the first time that Chamisa has been placed in the lead by the Afrobarometer and it underestimates his true support.

When you consider that many opposition supporters are scared to say they do not support the government for fear of retribution, it seems likely that Chamisa’s advantage is much bigger — and that Mnangagwa would face an uphill battle to winning an election that was anywhere close to being free and fair.

The repressive reflex

The authoritarian tactics used to ensure Zanu PF stays in power represent a finely tuned combination of the old and the new.

While the use of force arguably peaked during the 2008 presidential elections, physical violence is now buttressed by a wider set of controls over almost all aspects of civic and political life, pushing the country in a dangerous direction.

Moreover, the military has further expanded its political and economic influence, moving the country further away from genuine civilian rule.

The rural support base of the government, which keeps it in power, has long been built on a combination of patronage, disinformation, food aid and violence. Where the campaign in 2018 saw a relaxation of control that enabled the opposition to campaign in many rural areas for the first time in a decade, in 2023, traditional leaders are once again being mobilised to block access to the opposition and coerce voters to the polls.

In Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe, citizens do not enjoy the freedom of association or freedom of speech, undermining any possibility of a credible election.

The political control this gives Mnangagwa is bolstered by a raft of legislation that has curtailed what few civil liberties Zimbabweans had left. The new Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Act, passed by parliament in December, is a classic piece of “anti-NGO” legislation that undermines the ability of civil society groups to operate.

Under this law, the government can cancel the registration of any organisations operating in a manner deemed to be “political”, and arbitrarily interfere with how they are run.

Although the new rules have not yet been signed into law by President Mnangagwa, some of them are already being implemented. In particular, the increasingly centralised control of civic activity is being used to block a wide range of activities, including voter registration drives.

Meanwhile, the Cyber and Data Protection Act of 2021 “further undermines the rights of Zimbabweans, including civil society groups and human rights defenders”, consolidating existing censorship strategies. This is emblematic of a broader trend, in which the law has been turned into a political weapon to detain and exhaust government critics.

At the time of writing this article, opposition leader Job Sikhala has been in jail for six months after being detained on trumped-up charges and denied bail numerous times. Others who have suffered similar treatment include journalist and anti-corruption leader Hopewell Chin’ono.

Worse still, three opposition youth leaders — Cecilia Chimbiri, Joana Mamombe and Netsai Marova — were arrested when they spoke out about how they were abducted and sexually assaulted after being taken into police custody.

In Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe, citizens do not enjoy the freedom of association or freedom of speech, undermining any possibility of a credible election.

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