It has been two years since President Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as president, on August 26, 2018. Zimbabwe’s government has made little progress since then in promoting and protecting human rights. Although President Mnangagwa has repeatedly voiced a commitment to human rights reforms, his administration in fact remains highly intolerant of basic rights, peaceful dissent, and free expression.
Unfortunately, the Zimbabwe security forces have increasingly committed serious violations, including violent attacks, abductions, torture, arbitrary arrests and other abuses against the opposition, government critics, and activists. The crackdown on anticorruption protests in July 31 is just the most recent example.
On July 20, the police arrested and detained Hopewell Chin’ono, an awarding-winning journalist, and Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of the political group Transform Zimbabwe. Chin’ono and Ngarivhume had helped expose high-level corruption in Zimbabwe and called for the nationwide anti-corruption protests. The courts denied them bail, and, more than 40 days later, they remain in prison, accused of inciting public violence.
On July 30, the eve of the protests, security forces raided the house of Mduduzi Mathuthu, a prominent journalist and editor of the online newspaper Zimlive, in Bulawayo. Failing to find him, they arrested his sister Nomagugu Mathuthu and three nephews to compel Mduduzi to turn himself in. While the others were released hours later, one nephew remained in detention, where he was badly tortured for another two days and required medical attention on his release.
The police cracked down against peaceful protesters on July 31, injuring 16 people. Among the at least 60 protesters arrested were the award-winning novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga and the opposition MDC Alliance spokesperson, Fadzayi Mahere. Dangarembga and Mahere were released the next day.
The security forces had used excessive lethal force to crush nationwide protests in January 2019 that had been triggered by President Mnangagwa’s sudden announcement of a fuel price increase. During demonstrations throughout Zimbabwe, government forces fired live ammunition, killing 17 people, and raped at least 17 women.
On August 1, 2018, protests over delayed election results erupted in Harare, resulting in widespread violence. An international panel set up by President Mnangagwa, the Motlanthe Commission of Inquiry, found that 6 people died and 35 others were injured as a result of actions by the state security forces. The commission’s important recommendations have yet to be carried out, including to hold those responsible for the abuses to account and to compensate families of those killed and those who lost property.
The Mnangagwa administration has also yet also to set up the crucial Independent Complaints Mechanism envisaged under section 210 of Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution to receive and investigate complaints from the public about misconduct or abuses by members of the security forces and to provide remedies.
Under Mnangagwa’s presidency, unresolved cases of abductions and torture of government critics have escalated without the arrest of any of the abductors. In the last year alone, over 70 critics of the government have been abducted and tortured by unidentified men suspected to be state security agents. In May this year, three MDC Alliance activists --Cecilia Chimbiri, Netsai Marova, and Member of Parliament Joanna Mamombe -- were abducted after taking part in a peaceful protest. They were tortured and sexually abused, then dumped in Bindura, 80 kilometers from Harare.
Armed men abducted Obert Masaraure, the national president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, at his home in Harare on January 18, 2019, and beat him severely with leather whips. They handed him over to Harare Central Police Station, and he later appeared before a Harare magistrate on charges of subversion and inciting public violence. In June 2019, Masaraure was similarly abducted, stripped naked, and beaten by gunmen suspected to be state security agents. Before abandoning him in the bush, his captors ordered him to stop mobilising teachers for strike actions.
In August 2019, six masked gunmen abducted, beat, and forced the popular Zimbabwean comedian and government critic Samantha Kureya (known as “Gonyeti”) to drink raw sewage. In the same month, eight masked gunmen wielding AK-47 assault rifles abducted another activist, Tatenda Mombeyarara. The abductors accused him of organising anti-government protests and beat him severely, breaking his left leg and a finger. On September 14, 2019, three unidentified men abducted and tortured Dr Peter Magombeyi, then leader of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association, which had organised a series of protests to demand better salaries for government health workers. Magombeyi later fled the country.
Instead of addressing the issues raised by critics, on August 4, President Mnangagwa publicly described his critics as “dark forces,” “a few rogue Zimbabweans,” and “terrorist opposition groupings.” He said nothing about the constitutional rights of Zimbabweans to peacefully protest or the violations of government’s domestic and international human rights obligations. The crackdown on activists has inspired a growing online campaign, with the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, which has resulted in more than one million tweets in one week highlighting the appalling human rights situation in Zimbabwe.
The Mnangagwa government has shown itself capable of taking positive steps for human rights. Amongst the few bright spots was the amendment of the Education Act, a significant step forward for children across the country. Among other things, the amendment prohibits corporal punishment and the exclusion of pregnant girls from school in accordance with the Zimbabwe Constitution, which guarantees the right to education.
An overwhelming number of students have been affected by corporal punishment in Zimbabwe’s schools. The new law provides that children must not be subjected to any form of physical or psychological torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment at school, and prohibits teachers from beating students. It further provides that every school must provide suitable infrastructure for students with disabilities and requires government authorities to ensure that every school, in the country protests the rights of students with disabilities.
But the moves to protect children have sadly been an exception. Even outside of politics, Zimbabweans have not fared much better in terms of protection of their rights. The global Covid-19 pandemic worsened an already dire health crisis as the country has grappled with a shortage of skilled professionals and healthcare staff and an eroded infrastructure with ill-equipped hospitals and a lack of essential medicines and commodities.
Violations of the right to food, through acute food shortages, persist. According to the United Nations, 7.7 million people (60 percent of the population) are food insecure. Around 5.5 million of these people live in the rural areas and 2.2 million in urban areas.
To bring an end to abuses, Zimbabwe authorities should order prompt investigations of all serious human rights abuses over the last two years and carry out the recommendations of the investigative bodies. They should prosecute those responsible for abuses, including members of security forces, in accordance with national law and international standards. The government should also take urgent steps to reform the security forces, end their involvement in partisan politics, and ensure that they act professionally and in a rights-respecting manner.
Zimbabwe’s constitution provides for a human rights framework, to enable millions of Zimbabweans to realize one of the main objectives of the struggle for independence: the enjoyment of fundamental human rights and freedoms. What is needed is the political will to carry out the constitution’s mandate. If President Mnangagwa fulfills his promises to respect human rights and the rule of law, the lives of ordinary Zimbabwe would be vastly improved. But so far it is all talk with little action.