The United States has called on the Zimbabwe government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa to stop its ongoing brutal crackdown on opposition supporters, rights defenders, labour leaders, and ordinary Zimbabweans. In a statement released earlier this week, the U.S. State Department also demanded that members of Zimbabwe’s security forces who committed “crimes against humanity” during and after last month’s nationwide protests against the president’s decision to hike the price of fuel by 150% be held accountable.
“The United States remains seriously concerned about the excessive use of force by Government of Zimbabwe security forces since January 14, which has resulted in at least 13 deaths, 600 victims of violence, torture or rape, and more than 1,000 arrests,” reads the State Department’s statement. “The Government of Zimbabwe’s use of violence against civil society and imposition of undue internet restrictions betray promises to create a new Zimbabwe.”
In January, Zimbabweans heeded a call by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), Zimbabwe’s largest labour organization, for a 3-day national stay away protest against Mnangagwa’s shock fuel price hike. The government responded by unleashing the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), and suspected ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU-PF) party militia. It also imposed a total blockade on the Internet, crippling popular social media services such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Local and international human rights organizations condemned the unprecedented blockade. The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a coalition of 21 NGOs, labelled the blockade “a tool of repression meant to mask the massive human rights violations which the state was preparing to commit”.
Crimes against humanity
In a report (pdf) released last week, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum characterized the government’s reponse to the January protests as a “de facto state of emergency” in which “the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) was unlawfully deployed into the streets and residential areas where they unleashed a reign of terror on anyone they came across”. According to the report:
The violations of human rights that started as the state’s response to mass protests on 14 January, 2019 following the increase in fuel prices immediately took a widespread systematic character, the dominant actors being the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and suspected ZANU-PF militia.
The systematic and sustained nature of the violations raises fear that this is becoming a case of crimes against humanity. Over the past three weeks, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (the Forum) has documented at least 1803 violations of human rights, the ZNA and ZRP being implicated in all categories of violations. The figures have since increased since the last report by the Forum released on 18 January 2019, as additional and fresh reports were documented. To date, the violations include at least 17 extra-judicial killings, 17 cases of rape or other violations of a sexual nature, 26 abductions, 61 displacements, 81 assaults consistent with gunshot attacks, at least 586 assaults and torture, inhuman and degrading treatment including dog bites, 954 arrests and detention (including dragnet arrests), among other violations.
The Mnangagwa regime’s Internet blockade deliberately sough to conceal these undeniable “crimes against humanity”.
The 954 individuals arrested include ZCTU Secretary-General Japhet Moyo and Peter Mutasa, the union’s president, who faces charges of “attempting to overthrow a constitutionally elected government or alternatively inciting violence,” and prominent democracy activist Pastor Evan Mawarire. Mawarire, the founder of the #ThisFlag movement, faces trumped-up charges of “subverting a constitutionally-elected government” after calling on Zimbabweans to the heed the ZCTU’s protest call out.
Mnangagwa initially grabbed power in November 2017 through a military coup that forced Robert Mugabe to resign after nearly 37 years of bloodstained rule. During the Mugabe era, he used “to bide his time before suddenly crunching Mr Mugabe’s enemies“. Mnangagwa is implicated in the Zimbabwean state’s 1980s Gukurahundi massacre of 20,000 members of the Ndebele-speaking minority in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces. As national security minister between 1980 and 1988, he oversaw the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), Zimbabwe’s dreaded secret police.
Mnangagwa’s July 2018 presidential election “victory” was tainted by widespread voter intimidation, allegations of election fraud, and security forces’ extra-judicial killing of unarmed protesters. Then members of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces shot and killed seven unarmed people in Harare during protests against alleged election rigging.
The Mnangagwa regime’s January 2019 Internet blockade violated international law and numerous sections of Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution (pdf). In 2011, Frank La Rue, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, declared access to the Internet a human right. In a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council, La Rue stated:
The Special Rapporteur considers cutting off users from Internet access, regardless of the justification provided, including on the grounds of violating intellectual property rights law, to be disproportionate and thus a violation of article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights…
In a July 2018 resolution (pdf), the UN Human Rights Council condemned “unequivocally measures in violation of international human rights law that prevent or disrupt an individual’s ability to seek, receive or impart information online”.
Mnangagwa’s Internet blockade violated particularly the following sections of the Zimbabwe constitution:
- Section 57, which states that “every person has the right to privacy,” including the right not to have “the privacy of their communications infringed”.
- Section 61, which upholds the “right to freedom of expression,” including the “freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information”.
- Section 62, which states that every person “has the right to any information” necessary for “the exercise or protection of a right”.
The constitution also guarantees freedom of assembly.
Last week, Mnangagwa convened a questionable “post-election dialogue” meeting at his State House offices in Harare, attended by the leaders of the 20-plus political parties that participated in last July’s harmonized elections. Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Nelson Chamisa, who insists he won the disputed presidential election, snubbed the meeting. He wants a “genuine dialogue” mediated by a “credible” external convener such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), African Union or United Nations.
The State Department’s statement echoed Chamisa’s call for an immediate national dialogue process that is “credible, inclusive, and mediated by a neutral third party”. It added:
In order for such a dialogue to succeed, the Government of Zimbabwe should end its excessive violence and intimidation, immediately release the civil society activists who have been arbitrarily detained, and hold security force members responsible for human rights violations and abuses accountable.
Mnangagwa is unlikely to heed Washington’s call on his regime to “enact promised political and economic reforms”. So far, he’s made no effort to reform Zimbabwe’s notorious security sector. He exonerated the military for the July 2018 fatal shootings. He justified his government’s brutal response to the January protests.
In fact, Mnangagwa seems to be abandoning his conciliatory façade altogether. Last week, he accused western countries, including the U.S., of sponsoring the violence that rocked the January protests.
“I’m (certain that) the US is more worried about its interests in the region than anything else,” he said, according to various local media reports. “They would accept a dictator as long as they are pliable and do their bidding.”
The security forces’ post-July 2018 election killings betrayed a planned and calculated state terror campaign aimed at permanently silencing the opposition. Then the Mnangagwa regime had not realized that the economy would be its biggest challenge. In December, the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) revealed a year-on-year inflation rate of 42,09%, the highest in a decade. The January 2019 protests were a collective expression of Zimbabweans’ displeasure with the regime’s continued failure to deliver on its promise to revive the economy. The regime responded with live ammunition and sjamboks.
The brutality is likely to continue. The Mnangagwa regime is prepared to consolidate its rule through egregious violence.
A document recently seen the Guardian (UK) revealed that the ruling ZANU PF party believes that the January protests were part of a West-funded plan for regime change in Zimbabwe. It accused the Zimbabwean opposition, “rogue NGOs”, protesters, and “hostile intelligence services” of “following a plan ‘by hostile elements to subvert the state by rendering the country ungovernable'”. According to the Guardian, the ZANU PF document justified the security forces brutality, calling it “proportional to the threat posed” by unarmed protesters.
In the wake of the January crackdown, a senior British official stated that Zimbabwe’s former colonial master would no longer support the African country’s bid to rejoin the Commonwealth. In response, George Charamba, Mnangagwa’s spokesperson, said Zimbabwe was “not dying to rejoin” the body after all. Earlier, Charamba had warned that Harare’s brutal response to the January protests was a “foretaste of things to come”. In an interview with the state-owned Sunday Mail newspaper, he also revealed that the “Executive was revisiting certain constitutional provisions that were being abused by some political elements”.
As Zimbabwe’s economic crisis deepens, expect the Mnangagwa regime to commit more crimes against humanity in the name national security.
The U.S. and international community have considerable leverage over the Mnangagwa regime. Harare desperately needs international aid and foreign investment to stop the ongoing economic collapse. Harare needs external help to reduce its $13 billion foreign debt.
The U.S. Congress imposed economic and travel sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2001 through the the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act or ZIDERA. The measures sought to “support the people of Zimbabwe in their struggle to effect peaceful, democratic change, achieve broad-based and equitable economic growth, and restore the rule of law”. Trump renewed ZIDERA when he signed S.2779, the “Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Amendment Act of 2018” (pdf), in to law last August.
The United States’ targeted sanctions program began March 7, 2003 when then U.S. President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13288 (pdf). The program targeted 141 entities and individuals in Zimbabwe. The text of the program stated that the policies and actions of “certain members of the Government of Zimbabwe and other persons,” among them former president Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa, and now Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, “to undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes or institutions, contributing to the deliberate breakdown in the rule of law in Zimbabwe, to politically motivated violence and intimidation in that country, and to political and economic instability in the southern African region, constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States”.
The international community must continue to support the people of Zimbabwe in their ongoing struggle to free themselves from the blood-stained clutches of Mugabe 2.0. Emmerson Mnangagwa still represents the continuation of Mugabe’s terrible legacy of state-sponsored brutality.
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. He’s the founder and editor of these blogs: The Canadian Progressive, Zimbabwean Progressive, and Charity Files. Follow him on Twitter: @Obiemad
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