A truly ‘new Zimbabwe’ should mean a free space for dissent

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By Vongai Chikwanda

As Zimbabwe celebrates 39 years of independence, its citizens still await evidence that the country truly has broken away from its repressive past.

“I am your listening President, a servant leader. No one is above the law. This is a new Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe we all want.”

At his inauguration on 26 August 2018, President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared that he would represent all Zimbabweans. This statement came after the killing of six people by security forces in the post-election violence of 1 August 2018, when people took to the streets demanding the release of the presidential election results.

The crackdown bore a painful similarity to the brutality overseen by former president Robert Mugabe, under whose leadership any form of dissent was ruthlessly suppressed over decades.

Since then, Zimbabweans have continued to ask the question: what has really changed?

The plight of anyone striving to earn a living in Zimbabwe has been worsened by regressive policies which have placed at least 72% of the population below the poverty line and on an economic cliff edge.

1 Incomes – for those fortunate enough to have a job in the struggling economy – have been eroded by more than a third with little or no purchasing power since 2017.

Amid flagrant government spending, swingeing austerity policies have further widened inequality – millions have limited access to water, food and other basic services. Fuel price hikes of 150% in January pushed many Zimbabweans on to the streets to express their dissent.

The heavy-handed response by the authorities which left 16 people dead has dashed fragile hopes that Zimbabwe might be transformed into a country where human rights are enjoyed by all.

Hundreds of people were arrested in the January crackdown, including opposition and civil society leaders. Opposition MPs Joanna Mamombe and Charlton Hwende are awaiting trial on charges of “subverting a constitutional government”, an alarming echo of the defensive climate of fear encouraged for so long by the previous regime.

It does not feel like “servant” leadership when the ones the President has promised to serve are being violently suppressed.

Torture and other ill-treatment, and the use of excessive force by police and military, as well as arbitrary arrests, have historically been used in Zimbabwe against those who dare to publicly express their peaceful dissent. Such violations have marred the country’s history for decades.

The Gukurahundi killings of 1984, and the killing of more than 200 people by state security forces around the 2008 elections, are some of the chilling examples of violent repression in the country’s past.

Is it too much to ask for such violations to end once and for all?

For a truly new Zimbabwe to emerge, President Mnangagwa’s government must end impunity and hold security forces accountable for all past gross human rights violations including the killings and other serious violations that occurred in August 2018 and January this year.

As Zimbabwe celebrates 39 years of independence, President Mnangagwa would do well to fulfil his promise to listen, show that no one is above the law and ensure that governmental powers are not used to repress the people.

A truly new Zimbabwe should be about the enjoyment of human rights by all.

Vongai Chikwanda is a campaigner at Amnesty International’s Southern Africa regional office.