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The Mugabe era has not ended

15 February 2019

Zimbabwe is still beset by constitutional and economic instability, says Tichafa Chitumba


Zimbabwean lawyers protest in Harare last month

Zimbabwean lawyers protest in Harare last month

PROPHETIC witness is hard for Christian leaders in Zimbabwe today. A report by the watchdog Freedom House has rightly observed, in a recent report, that my country’s police “have long engaged in acts of violence, for which they enjoy impunity”. For this reason, I write here under a pseudonym.

Hard as such witness is, however, proclaiming hope is perhaps harder, after nearly 20 years of continual crisis and hunger, since the first white-farm seizures in 2000.

In mid-January, mass protests organised by Zimbabwe’s civil servants, lawyers, labour unions, and opposition MDC Alliance plunged the government into panic mode. President Emmerson Mnangagwa feared that the unfolding unrest prompted by the economic crisis could morph into a fully fledged uprising. The resultant crackdown by the authorities was swift and brutal.

People took to the streets after the price of basic commodities suddenly rocketed in a matter of days as a result of critical supply problems (News, 25 January). Fuel shortages caused transport fare hikes of 300 per cent, or even 400 per cent, within days.

The government quickly showed that, unlike food, tear gas was not in short supply. Definitive casualty figures are hard to come by, but the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights said on 18 January that it had treated 68 cases of gunshot wounds, and more than 100 instances of “assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, [and] baton sticks”.

Amnesty International said that eight people were killed when police and army units fired into the crowds with live ammunition. Arrests and imprisonments ran into the hundreds.

While numbers of dead and injured are a matter of dispute between the government and NGOs, all parties agree on the facts (if not the legality) of another repressive move: the internet shutdown.

The blackout lasted intermittently, with occasional short periods of restored service, from 15 to 21 January. It was ordered by our country’s National Security Minister, Owen Mudha Ncube. The intention was to frustrate co-ordination among opposition groups by cutting off their social-media access, and to deflate anger among the populace by blocking exposure to independent news coverage.

Internet services were restored after human-rights NGOs obtained a ruling from a High Court judge, Justice Owen Tagu, that Mr Ncube had exceeded his statutory powers. Their case was put courageously by Eric Matinenga, formerly Chancellor of the Church of the Province of Central Africa.

In identifying the President as the appropriate nexus of authority for such a decision, however, the judgment may open the way for a more extended and legally secure shutdown in future. For now, we try to be grateful that the executive bowed to the courts at all: a fleeting courtesy to the rule of law amid growing despotism.

CONSIDERABLE hope accompanied the rise of Mr Mnangagwa to presidential power in November 2017. We Zimbabweans thought that, even if political change might not be a realistic expectation, we could at least look forward to economic stabilisation and an improvement in living standards. Things now look bleaker, however, than at the end of the Robert Mugabe era.

The root problem is that, paradoxically, the Mugabe era has not ended. President Mnangagwa may have removed in a coup d’état his predecessor, the nonagenarian Mr Mugabe, who was President since independence from Britain in 1980. The system that Mr Mugabe built — the Zanu-PF party state — has not changed, however. The Party’s “values”, or, rather, its cankered culture, have remained undisturbed. There has been no move towards constitutionalism or competent economic management.

Our President has been globetrotting in search of investments, most recently to the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos. There, surrounded by glistening banks of snow, he tried to assure investors that “Zimbabwe is open for business.” In fact, Zimbabwe is a ghost town — or, rather, a cemetery for investors.

Foreign companies cannot be sure that, at a convenient point (convenient for the government), they will not be labelled “imperialists” and see their assets appropriated.

Even if that does not happen, unreliable electricity supply, wildly fluctuating petrol prices, and bottlenecks and unpredictable closures at our border crossings do not make us an attractive place to anchor international supply chains.

IN THE present crisis, there have been some prophetic and courageous statements by church leaders from across the spectrum of denominations. The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference condemned the government’s “heavy-handed and intolerant handling” of the situation, and asserted that it had caused “injury and death of innocent people”. A prominent independent pastor, Evan Mawarire, was arrested and then released (News, 9 February). He still faces charges for his public support of the protests.

What type of a gospel do l preach to hungry and angry people when l am hungry and angry, too? On many days, with the psalmist I ask “How long, O Lord, how long?” I try to trust that, somehow, in God’s time and beyond the horizon of our foresight, the crazed threads of history resolve in a pattern that makes sense.

Tichafa Chitumba is a Zimbabwean priest serving in the Church of the Province of Central Africa. He writes under a pseudonym.

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