The East African
After two years of intensifying repression and worsening economic hardships, the euphoria that marked the end of Robert Mugabe’s 38-year hold on power is dissipating in Zimbabwe.
The late Mugabe, who ruled the southern African country since Independence in 1980, was toppled in a coup engineered by his lieutenants in 2017.
He was succeeded by long-time confidante President Emmerson Mnangagwa whose dramatic rise brought in hope of freedom for many after years of authoritarian rule.
President Mnangagwa promised to steer the country into a democracy and styled his leadership as a “new dispensation.”
“I am soft as wool,” he said at the time.
The former vice president, who was forced into brief exile during former president Mugabe’s last days in power before his triumphant return on the back of a military takeover, largely kept his promise as he finished his mentor’s term.
However, August 1, 2018, the day after the historic polls that gave him a full mandate, marked the turning point.
Soldiers opened fire on opposition supporters demonstrating against delays in the release of presidential elections results, killing six on the streets of the capital Harare.
Human-rights groups said 17 people were killed and several women raped by soldiers after President Mnangagwa unleashed the military to stop protests against a steep increase in the price of fuel in January this year.
The government blocked the Internet as protests raged and analysts say by then the government had resorted back to the Mugabe rule book.
“The resurgence of authoritarian politics in the form of the post 2018 election violence and the violent repression of opposition and civic dissent in January, August and November 2019, marked the predictable path of Mugabe’s legacy,” said academic Brian Raftopoulos.
“The post 2017 Mnangagwa regime very quickly turned into political repression that has defined the multi-layered Zimbabwean crisis since the late 1990s,” he added.
Opposition protests were banned throughout the year as state security agencies said they feared the volatile economic situation could ignite chaos. On the few occasions that supporters took to the streets they were bashed by riot police and several people were arrested.
At least 20 civic society activists and opposition legislators were charged with treason for their alleged involvement in the protests.
Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said that “fear, frustration and anxiety” were growing among Zimbabweans.
After a 10-day fact-finding mission in September, Voule said the deteriorating political, economic and social conditions in the country had killed any hope for change.
“I have perceived that there is a serious deterioration on the political, economic and social environment since August 2018, resulting in fear, frustration and anxiety among a large number of Zimbabweans,” Voule said.
A month later, UN special rapporteur on the rights to food Hilal Elver, warned that the country was on the brink of “a man-made crisis” with millions of people facing starvation.
“More than 60 per cent of the population of a country once seen as the breadbasket of Africa is now considered food insecure, with most households unable to obtain enough food to meet basic needs due to hyperinflation,” said Ms Elver in a preliminary report after an 11-day visit.
A severe drought significantly reduced agriculture output and Zimbabwe is struggling to finance grain imports due to foreign currency shortages.
The drought has also plunged the country of 14 million people into darkness as the main source of hydropower—Kariba Dam—is running dry. Since May, the country has been experiencing 18-hour daily blackouts, which have crippled the economy.
The economic pressures have spawned labour unrest with doctors going on strike for over three months demanding salaries in foreign currency.
President Mnangagwa’s regime reacted to the strike by firing over 500 doctors, claiming that they were being funded by external forces to destabilise the government.
One of the leaders of the doctors’ union was abducted by suspected state security agents, sparking widespread condemnation.
Analysts say the failing economy and increasing social unrest are some of the reasons President Mnangagwa’s government is becoming more intolerant.
According to a 2019 Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum report, human rights violations have increased since the November 2017 coup.
The violations include shooting to death of protesters by security forces, raping of women during military clampdowns, abductions and arbitrary arrests.
Human-rights organisations also warned of increasing violent protests and civil unrest.
“The situation in Zimbabwe is not tenable for the enjoyment of fundamental human-rights and the situation does not seem to be improving. The economy continues to slide deeper into crisis caused by systematic and structural problems spanning for almost two decades now,” said Janet Zhou, a human-rights activist in a report titled Human Rights and Shrinking Democratic Space in the Sadc Region: The Case of Zimbabwe.
“The situation needs concerted efforts at the local level but also from the region and the international community,” she added.
In November, the Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations wrote to President Mnangagwa proposing the suspension of elections for seven years to give the country time to reconcile.
The churches say they were worried about increasing political tension between the ruling party and the main opposition, which emanated from last year’s disputed elections.
The proposal was rejected by both the ruling party and the opposition, which said suspending elections would be unconstitutional. Both parties, however, agreed that there was a need for dialogue to resolve the impasse.
In 2019, the MDC led by Nelson Chamisa boycotted President Mnangagwa’s parliamentary appearances, much to the chagrin of the ruling party.
“Central to the strategy of the MDC in pushing for dialogue with the ruling party has been a combination of denying President Mnangagwa political legitimacy, protests and continued calls for international and regional pressure, through sanctions,” said Prof Raftopoulos.
“Thus, at present there is little sign of movement towards a national dialogue. However, there are indications that there are voices in the ruling party that would like to enter broad discussion with Mr Chamisa’s MDC,” he added.
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who spent three days in Zimbabwe exploring possible talks between the country’s key economic players, said last week on Wednesday that he would be back in Harare to push for dialogue.
Mbeki mediated the talks between Mugabe and late opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, which yielded a unity government in 2009.
The political settlement led to a brief economic turnaround that was disrupted when Mugabe’s party regained control of Parliament during the 2013 election.
President Mnangagwa has so far rejected having his legitimacy on the agenda of any talks. He enjoys the backing of regional blocks such as the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), but is under pressure from the United States and the European Union.
A Sadc summit in August resolved to intensify the campaign against sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by the west for alleged human-rights violations during the Mugabe era.
“The political polarisation that characterises the national context is also apparent at the regional and international levels,” said Prof Raftopoulos adding, “While the EU and the United States have insisted that the crisis in Zimbabwe is the result of ‘years of mismanagement and corruption,’ Sadc says it is because of the adverse effects of sanctions on the Zimbabwe economy and the region.”
University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Eldred Masunungure said Mbeki’s mediation was unlikely to yield any significant reforms in the short term.
“It is a route we have travelled before. It gave a respite to the economic and political crises but the brittle coalition arrangement quickly unravelled. Zanu PF re-established its dominance on the political scene,” Masunungure said.
Chamisa said dialogue must deliver “true change and real reforms.”
“When we shake hands, let us agree to truly walk in the same direction, a new direction,” he said after his initial meeting with Mbeki.