By Panashe Chigumadzi
On Aug. 7, Zimbabwean police transferred prominent journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume to the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.
Both figures were arrested last month and accused of inciting public violence — though, in reality, the violence came from the government itself.
Now, the two prisoners of conscience — cast in leg irons; denied bail, private visits with lawyers and family, food and adequate covid-19 precautions; and detained in a cruel colonial relic that has held liberation stalwarts even in the post-independence era — have become symbols of political persecution by Zimbabwe’s military state.
They are an indictment of a country that is full of law, yet devoid of justice.
Ever since the novel coronavirus pandemic began, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government has used it as a cover to clamp down and loot.
The repression has only accelerated in recent weeks, with frustrations over how the government has handled the pandemic looming large.
As public discontent grew over the government’s inadequate pandemic response, inflation of more than 750 percent and impending economic and hunger crises, Chin’ono exposed alleged connections between Mnangagwa’s son and Drax International, a United Arab Emirates-based company that was awarded a $60 million contract to supply covid-19 medical equipment.
While the exposé led to the contract’s cancellation and the arrest and dismissal of the country’s health minister, Chin’ono declared in June that he feared for his life after Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF, singled him out for his “systematic targeted attacks of the first family members.”
Then, the next month, Ngarivhume’s political group, Transform Zimbabwe, announced a national protest on July 31 bringing together opposition, trade unions and civil society to demonstrate against corruption and economic mismanagement by Mnangagwa’s government.
This clearly hit a sore spot. After the November 2017 coup that deposed his mentor Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa promised economic and democratic reforms. He has since failed on each of his promises. Disillusionment deepens as he proves to be just like, or perhaps even worse, than his predecessor.
The latest economic crisis revives memories of the hardships suffered more than a decade ago under hyperinflation. With most Zimbabweans already struggling to put food on the table, the pandemic has widened and deepened those frustrations.
Aware of the discontent, Mnangagwa ordered his security forces to enforce a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew and ban on large public gatherings ahead of the planned demonstrations, citing the virus spread.
For many, this was the latest in the ZANU-PF government’s repressive playbook. Perhaps most ominously, despite criticism, Mnangagwa’s government pushed through public consultations on constitutional amendments that consolidate the power of the executive.
The cases of Chin’ono and Ngarivhume are just two high-profile examples of what has long been occurring in Zimbabwe with impunity. Zimbabwe Republic Police have admitted that more than 105,000 people have been arrested for violating lockdown regulations since the pandemic’s onset.
For protesting working conditions and demanding payment in U.S. dollars, police arrested 13 nurses in July, alleging they had contravened lockdown regulations. For attending a protest during lockdown in May, three young women — including Joana Mamombe, an opposition member of parliament, and activists Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova — were reportedly abducted, tortured, assaulted and later rearrested for “faking their abduction.”
Other journalists have been targeted as well. ZimLive editor Mduduzi Mathuthu, whose reporting revealed corruption during the pandemic, has gone into hiding, saying: “I am hiding like a rat in my own country for doing nothing more than my job.” His nephew paid the price; he was reportedly abducted and tortured and is now suffering renal failure from alleged poisoning.
And for staging nonviolent, socially distanced demonstrations on July 31, police arrested dozens, including Booker Prize-nominated novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga and opposition party Movement for Democratic Change Alliance spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere.
This made the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter trend worldwide, earning endorsements and retweets from celebrities such as AKA, Pearl Thusi, Thandie Newton, Noname, Ice Cube and Gabrielle Union.
The campaign borrows the language of the Black Lives Matter movement to highlight the painful reality of Black Zimbabweans facing violence and repression from a postcolonial Black government indifferent to the lives of its citizens.
Days after #ZimbabweanLivesMatter went viral, the minister of women and youth affairs, Sithembiso Nyoni announced with little sense of irony that the Zimbabwean government wants to criminalize “campaigning against one’s country.”
In an unusual televised address to the nation, Mnangagwa also dismissed the protests and the viral campaign in language reminiscent of his predecessor, describing the country’s opposition as “terrorists” and lashing out at “bad apples.”
Thus far, the response from regional stakeholders — including the African Union and the Southern African Development Community — has been muted. After mounting calls for intervention, South Africa, home to the largest proportion of the Zimbabwean diaspora, sent “special envoys” to “assess the political situation.”
The envoys met with Mnangagwa but left the country without meeting with opposition leaders and members of civil society.
More than two years after the coup that overthrew Mugabe, Zimbabwean lives continue to be jeopardized by ZANU-PF’s looting, poor governance and repressiveness. Justice-seeking citizens are being hunted down and caged like prey. For Zimbabwean lives to matter, the state must free all political prisoners and put an end to its corruption and repression once and for all.
This article was first published in The Washington Post.