By Tom Kingsbury | Political Editor
Zimbabwe is in turmoil; “fear runs down the spine of many of our people today.”
These are the words used in a letter of appeal by the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference (ZCBC), urging for a resolution of the issues facing Zimbabwe: “economic collapse, deepening poverty, food insecurity and human rights abuses”.
Zimbabwe has seen several cases – and further alleged instances – of corruption by government officials. The country also faces hyperinflation and economic crisis, political unrest, the arrests of opposition party members, activists, and journalists. And all these concerns are exacerbated by the growing concern of the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.
According to Zimbabwean human rights organisation Kubatana, Corruption in Zimbabwe has become “endemic across all sectors”, including the political, private, religious, and civil spheres.
Kubatana says Zimbabwe’s current anti-corruption infrastructure is inadequate, and “has dismally failed to abate the scourge of corruption.” One of the demands made by the ‘31st of July’ protests is that corruption is examined by independent bodies, due to a lack of trust in government institutions.
One of the most prominent corruption cases in recent memory has been over Covid-19 supplies contracts. Obadiah Moyo, at the time Zimbabwe’s health minister, was arrested in June, charged with corruption regarding the awarding of a medicinal supplies contract worth tens of millions of dollars.
In early August, the US imposed sanctions on Zimbabwean businessman Kudakwashe Tagwirei, who it called “notoriously corrupt”, and suggested he had ‘materially assisted’ senior Zimbabwean government officials.
It is though Tagwirei has connections to senior members of ZANU PF, the ruling party in Zimbabwe, including to President Emmerson Mnangagwa and First Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, who took over the health minister position after President Mnangagwa sacked Obadiah Moyo.
Herbert Gambo, Mayor of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, was also charged with corruption relating to alleged land scams and abuse of office.
The Zimbabwe dollar is collapsing. It was reintroduced in late 2019 after ten years of using foreign currency due to hyperinflation in 2009.
Once again, the country is facing a move away from its own currency, with the inflation rate in Zimbabwe currently over 800%.
Nurses, teachers, doctors, and civil servants have demanded to be paid in US dollars, citing the instability of the state currency.
Kubatana blamed the crisis on what it calls “bad leadership” writing:
“Zimbabwe should be an economic powerhouse and a bread basket of Africa. Bad leadership underpinned by a lack of shared national vision, misgovernance, misplaced priorities and greed has turned the country to a basket case.”
The economic crisis, combined with the Coronavirus pandemic, has also created a significant health concern. Dr Rashida Ferrand, epidemiologist in Harare’s main public hospital, said:
“Whilst we have the capacity, we’re currently relying on two volunteer doctors and a small group of nurses per shift. Even though we have extremely sick patients we are taking in only a maximum of 30 patients.”
“The reality is if there are patients who are about to die and are at home I ask relatives and doctors to make them comfortable.”
Dr Norman Matara, who likewise works in Harare, explained some of the reasons for the worsening of the crisis:
“People are being forced right now to go outside of their houses to look for money so they can feed their families. They are also being forced to go out and look for clean water. So social distancing is not practical, and that is why we are seeing cases rise.”
There is also international unease over food shortages in Zimbabwe, the World Food Programme stating that nearly two thirds of the population will need food aid by the end of 2020.
Incarceration of government opponents
On July 20, in his home, Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested by Zimbabwean police. He was accused of inciting public violence, a charge levied at him for encouraging the public to join the ‘31st of July’ protests.
Arrested on the same charges was the orchestrator of the protests, government opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume.
Chin’ono is the journalist who broke the story of alleged government corruption regarding Covid-19 supplies, and his arrest received international condemnation as an alleged retaliation for exposing corruption.
A spokesperson for Amnesty International said in a statement:
“The arrests of Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume are designed to intimidate and send a chilling message to journalists, whistleblowers and activists who draw attention to matters of public interest in Zimbabwe”.
Emerging since Chin’ono’s arrest have been concerning stories suggesting he is being treated poorly in prison. He has told media colleagues he is being starved, and that despite a court order demanding him access to food, it is not being brought to him.
Prison officials had also reportedly denied him visitation from family members (who had tried to bring him warm food) and lawyers. And a Zimbabwe court has banned a top rights lawyer continuing to represent Chin’ono in his case.
The lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, said of the decision:
“The idea is to say to human rights lawyers, ‘If you represent such a client, we will come after you’”.
An unidentified woman is also alleged to have accessed Chin’ono in his cell at 4am, telling him she was part of the investigation team. Zimbabwe’s Criminal Investigation Department says they are not aware who the individual is.
Mtetwa said this demonstrates a “parallel structure” to official institutions, that “does not respect the law and constitutional provisions.”
Another prominent and highly disputed case is one of alleged torture and sexual abuse of government opposition party members.
Joana Mamombe, an MP for main opposition party MDC Alliance, and youth leaders Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova were arrested at a police roadblock in Harare. They were found on the side of the road two days later, 60 miles away from Harare, traumatised and badly injured.
The women allege they were abducted, subjected to hours of torture, sexual assault, and humiliation.
As a result of these claims, which the Zimbabwean government denies, the three were charged with obstructing justice and making a false statement prejudicial to the state, and were at first denied bail, though this was eventually granted.
UN experts said that in 2019 alone, there were 49 reported cases of abduction and torture without anyone being held to account because of investigations. MDC have called for an independent inquiry into the case, citing a lack of trust in government institutions.
Other recent arrests include those of six MDC party politicians who allegedly breached Zimbabwe’s Coronavirus lockdown measures, in what the US embassy called a “politicised use of security forces”.
And at least 13 nurses protesting in demand of a dollarised salary have been arrested according to the Zimbabwean Nurses’ Association.
More than 105,000 people have been arrested in Zimbabwe since March for violating Covid-19 restrictions.
In opposition to alleged and demonstrated cases of government corruption, hyperinflation, and what they considered poor handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, political leaders and other activists called for the Zimbabwean public to take to the streets on July 31 in protest.
But on the fated day, Harare’s streets were empty.
The Zimbabwean government claimed this was because the movement was not supported by the public, though a number of state measures reflect an active stifling of protests.
Prior to July 31, police arrested the organiser, Jacob Ngarivhume, and protest advocate Hopewell Chin’ono. Both were denied bail and are still imprisoned for allegedly inciting violence.
On the day, there was a strong police presence in Harare, which patrolled the streets and prevented assembly, sending people home. Police likewise shut down other major cities and towns, and established roadblocks.
Despite this, some still protested, leading to the arrests of 2020 Booker Prize nominated writer Tsitsi Dangarembga and MDC Alliance spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere.
Dozens of other activists were arrested too, and some individuals – including 30 MDC members, according to the party – went into hiding to avoid arrest.
President Mnangagwa said in a speech he would “flush out” the “bad apples” in the country, and his cabinet put forward a law that would punish political parties for “campaigning against the country”, as well as recommending tighter laws regarding freedom of speech by public officials, the media and Zimbabwe’s citizens.
The Zimbabwean public and international sympathisers are using the hashtag ZimbabweanLivesMatter to unify their protests of the government’s behaviour.
With several celebrities tweeting it and significant support across other African countries, the Zimbabwean people have had global reach with the hashtag.
It has been used to stoke the flames of protest against the Zimbabwean government and to appeal on a global stage alleged rights abuses, particularly of arrested government opponents such as Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume.
The hashtag has also been used to spread footage of alleged mistreatment of Zimbabwean citizens by soldiers and police, and news of events such as the murder of Lovender Chiwaya, a District Chair, Ward Councilor and MDC Alliance member, who was found “dead, naked and dumped” four houses from his home.
Zimbabwe is going through a period of economic, political, and social turmoil. No citizenry can be kept from expressing its views, and the Zimbabwean people are standing up, risking their freedom to speak for what they believe is right.
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