In our series of letters from African journalists, Zimbabwe’s Hopewell Chin’ono explains how he came face-to-face with the consequences of an alleged corruption scandal he helped highlight earlier this year.
I had been expecting trouble – so when eight men, some with AK-47s, arrived at my gate in an unmarked vehicle on the morning of 20 July, I was not surprised.
One warning had come about seven weeks earlier, when the spokesman for the ruling party had called me “unscrupulous” and accused me of tarnishing the name of the president’s family.
This was after I’d publicised a Covid-19 procurement scandal involving multi-million dollar contracts awarded to buy supplies at inflated prices – the health minister was then sacked and is facing charges over the allegations.
When the state agents asked me to come out of my house, I asked to see their warrant of arrest but they didn’t show me one.
Instead they hit my dining room glass door with a gun, and walked through to my bedroom where I was waiting for them with my phone, live-streaming their entrance.
I was dragged out of my bedroom barefoot, and asked to use the same entrance where the broken glass lay strewn.
That was the beginning of my 45-day nightmare.
I was not alone, I had been arrested on that same chilly day with Jacob Ngarivhume, a political activist who had called for a peaceful protest against corruption.
We were both charged with inciting violence as I had endorsed his march as the Zimbabwean constitution allows citizens to protest peacefully – something that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government often thwarts.
Whilst at Harare Central Remand Prison, we received a visit from Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, which we were told upset the president’s office.
Dermatitis and diarrhoea
So the next day, we were bundled into a truck and sent to the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, where the convicted criminals are kept in legs irons and handcuffs if they move from their cell section.
The jail has a capacity for 1,360 prisoners, yet it had more than 2,600.
I shared a cell, meant to house 16 inmates, with 44 other prisoners. There was no space to turn whilst sleeping, and this is in the middle of a Covid-19 pandemic.
The prisoners had no masks at all, and there was no running water or soap in the cells, where we were locked up for 17 hours a day.
With only one light bulb, it was impossible to read.
During the day we were in a courtyard, where 500 inmates shared only two toilets. Again there was no running water.
Many of the convicts suffered with pellagra because of the poor diet – symptoms include dermatitis and diarrhoea.
There was maize porridge for breakfast, maize meal with boiled beans for lunch – served at 10 in the morning – supper was again badly cooked maize meal with boiled cabbage.
‘I teared up’
I fell ill in the last week of August with a terrible fever – the prison hospital didn’t even have a paracetamol to help relieve the pain.
When my doctor came to the prison, the hospital didn’t have a blood pressure machine for him to use.