Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

| Sia Kambou | AFP

Zimbabwe’s new leader faces old problems

What you need to know:

  • President Emmerson Mnangagwa's administration is increasingly resorting to brutal crackdowns on dissent.
  • It is under immense pressure to address human rights violations.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa this week marked two years since he promised to turn around Zimbabwe’s economic misfortunes and build a strong democratic state, but instead, the country has sunk deeper into a socio-political crisis.

And he is under immense pressure from the opposition, Catholic bishops, foreign diplomats, civil society groups and regional leaders to address human rights violations by his government, which is increasingly resorting to brutal crackdowns on dissent.

After a wafer-thin lead over opposition leader Nelson Chamisa in the 2018 election, Mnangagwa is struggling to steady the southern African nation that appears to be sliding back into the crisis that forced the ouster of long-time ruler Robert Mugabe.

When he took over from Mugabe in 2017 following a military assisted intervention, Mnangagwa promised a raft of reforms that included stabilising the economy, normalising relations with the international community and opening up the democratic space in Zimbabwe.

Re-joining the Commonwealth and re-engagement with international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the African Development Bank and the Paris Club topped Mnangagwa’s reform agenda.

Emmerson Mnangagwa at his swearing-in in Harare in November 2017.

Photo credit: Jekesai Njikizana | AFP

“Fellow Zimbabweans, as we chart our way forward, we must accept that our challenges as a nation emanate in part from the manner in which we have managed our politics, both nationally and internationally, leading to circumstances in which our country has undeservedly been perceived or classified as a pariah state,” Mnangagwa said at his inauguration on August 26, 2018.

“Today the Republic of Zimbabwe renews itself. My government will work towards ensuring that the pillars of the state assuring democracy in our land are strengthened and respected. We fully reaffirm our membership to the family of nations, and express our commitment to playing our part in all regional, continental and international organisations and arrangements in order to make our modest contribution towards a prosperous and peaceful world order.”

Despite these assurances, Zimbabwe, a country once seen as the bread basket of the region, is now back in focus, for the wrong reasons.

More than half of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the World Food Programme. Hospitals have run out of basic drugs such as painkillers and power cuts, which had temporarily stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown are back.

Closely watching

On the international arena, western governments and the African Union are closely watching as events unfold.

Civil society organisations and opposition activists have started a campaign to draw attention to human rights abuses under the hashtag #ZimbabweLivesMatter as citizens ratchet pressure on the international community to intervene in the socio-political crisis.

The arrest of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono -- who, through social media, vented his frustrations over high cases of corruption in the public service, abductions of activists and the intimidation of human rights lawyers -- has concerned many. Mr Chin’ono was arrested together with opposition party leader Jacob Ngarivhume for planning to lead a protest over corruption and the rising cost of living on July 31.

Job Sikhala, the deputy chairman of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa, was also arrested for planning demonstrations. The Booker prize long-listed author Tsitsi Dangarembga was also detained on claims of inciting public violence. The #ZimbabweLivesMatter campaign was fashioned after the Black Lives Matter global protests following the killings of African Americans by white police officers in the United States.

Piled pressure

Stars and politicians such as Ice Cube and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have piled pressure on Mnangagwa’s administration.

The global attention prompted South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa to send two special envoys to meet with his Zimbabwean counterpart earlier this month. South Africa’s biggest opposition political party, the Democratic Alliance, said Ramaphosa had to show leadership in his capacity as the AU chairman by flying to Harare to meet with all the stakeholders and get a balanced picture of the political crisis unfolding in Zimbabwe.

Mnangagwa, however, insists that there is no crisis, maintaining that doors are open for the opposition, clergy and civil society to dialogue with him.

Blessing Vava, the national director for Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a conglomeration of more than 80 civil society organisations in Zimbabwe working together to bring democratic change, said only dialogue across all divides would help in addressing the current problems.

“Many Zimbabweans are leaving the country in droves using undesignated ports of entry into South Africa because it has become a nightmare to eke out a living, worse now under the current lockdown,” said Vava.

There is no difference between Mugabe and Mnangagwa

“Mnanangwa’s government has failed to deliver on its promises. Only genuine dialogue involving Zimbabweans from all walks of life can get us out of the quagmire. A credible mediator has to preside over this dialogue instead of the incumbent president because he is conflicted.”

Pedzisai Ruhanya, a University of Zimbabwe media studies lecturer, said the crackdown on dissent has resulted in authoritarian consolidation instead of democratisation for Mnangagwa’s administration.

“There is no difference between Mugabe and Mnangagwa,” Ruhanya said in an interview.

“On the international arena, Zimbabwe has lost the narrative of a reforming state. Instead it is becoming a pariah State and an outpost of tyranny.”

On Friday, the heads of mission of Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America accused authorities of using Covid-19 as an excuse to stifle citizens’ rights.

“Two years ago in his inaugural speech, President Mnangagwa vowed to serve the country and all its people. It is in this spirit that the heads of mission express their deep concern with the current political, economic, social and health crisis that most Zimbabweans are facing today,” the diplomats said in a statement.

President Robert Mugabe in 2013.

Photo credit: Alexander Joe | AFP

“The Zimbabwean people have the right to engage in dialogue to build a better future for their country. But the necessary discussions have so far been hindered by unhelpful rhetoric and blame assigned to several groups including diplomatic missions and non-state actors. We ask the government to move away from such language and instead to deliver on its long-promised reforms and reach across the divides.”

Local Catholic bishops stirred the hornets’ nest when they called on the government to stop human rights abuses. In their Pastoral Letter, which authorities claimed was sponsored by western governments, the men of cloth called Mnangagwa to order over the worsening human rights situation.

“The struggle in Zimbabwe, between those who think they have arrived and those on the march, has resulted in a multi-layered crisis of convergence of economic collapse, deepening poverty, food insecurity, corruption and human rights abuses among other crises in urgent need of resolution,” the Pastoral Letter read in part.

“The call for demonstrations is the expression of growing frustration and aggravation caused by the conditions that the majority of Zimbabweans themselves are in.

Red flag

“In the meantime, some of our people continue to live in hideouts, with some incarcerated, while others are on the run. Fear runs down the spine of many of our people today. The crackdown on dissent is unprecedented. Is this the Zimbabwe we want? To have a different opinion does not mean to be an enemy.”

Before this, the AU Commission had also raised the red flag over growing cases of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, the African Union Commission chief, had said the commission was following closely the political developments in Zimbabwe as the country mounts concerted efforts in response to the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Cognisant of the existing harsh socio-economic situation in the country, the chairperson urges the Zimbabwe authorities to respond to the pandemic ensuring that the national response is premised on human rights as enshrined in the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Force use

“The chairperson is concerned about reports of disproportionate use of force by security forces in enforcing Covid-19 emergency measures. He implores the authorities to exercise restraint in their response to peaceful protests,” he said.

For authorities in Zimbabwe, it’s a different picture all together.

“Two years ago today, I was inaugurated as your President. I vowed to serve Zimbabwe and its people so that we could move towards a more prosperous future . . . Zimbabwe is not without its challenges. But rest assured that myself and this government are fully committed to improving our great nation for the benefit of all Zimbabweans . . . Brick-by-brick we will build Zimbabwe,” Mnangagwa said this week.

Mnangagwa sees the reintroduction of the Zimbabwe dollar 10 years after using the greenback as one of the big achievements by his government. However, less than a year after the local unit was brought back, shops are already charging in US dollars and property owners are demanding rent in hard currency.