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By Tinashe Kairiza
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s recent utterances that government would take unspecified action on lawyers providing free legal advice and doctors voluntarily attending to victims of last month’s violent crackdown on protests by the security forces is an assault on civil liberties, and dents his administration’s promises to implement bold political reforms.
The military’s brutal quelling of protests last month left 17 people dead and is in stark contrast with Mnangagwa’s persistent rhetoric that Zimbabwe — a bastion of authoritarian and repressive rule for almost four decades is moving away state-sponsored violence which was a permanent feature during former president Robert Mugabe’s tenure.
There were also reports of women being raped by soldiers and police officers during last month’s security crackdown. The protests were triggered by a 150% fuel price increase announced by Mnangagwa.
Only last week, the President told diplomats that Zimbabwe had made giant leaps towards entrenching democracy — even as the international community strongly condemned the brutal clampdown on dissent.
Mnangagwa, whose legitimacy is being challenged by the opposition after he narrowly won last year’s disputed presidential election, was addressing a party gathering in Masvingo when he boldly delivered the chilling remarks.
“We saw them (protesters) burning police cars and killing cops, where else have you seen that? But we said no, we do not need violence. We deployed soldiers to stop the protesters and they quelled the disturbances. We do not want violence, so I said soldiers go and silence these people. They were silenced,” Mnangagwa said.
“They told them that if anyone gets arrested, they should go to a certain place, there are lawyers waiting to defend them if anyone gets hurt, they should go to a certain place, there are doctors waiting to treat them. We are now going after those doctors who were involved in those activities. Those lawyers that were inciting violence, we are now going after them. So those who choose violence, we are prepared.”
In the aftermath of last month’s riots, which was largely confined to the country’s restive urban arears, members of the Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights (ZDHR) offered medical assistance to dozens of people who were left nursing gunshot wounds. The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) provided legal representation to people who were charged with inciting violence, participating in violence and looting.
During the three-day general strike, Mnangagwa’s government also drew the ire of critics after cutting off internet connectivity in a move described by human rights defenders as a clumsy attempt to conceal the state’s bloody crackdown from the international community.
Five months prior to last month’s crippling strike, Mnangagwa had deployed the military on August 1 to contain demonstrators who were demanding the prompt announcement of last year’s disputed presidential election. The army indiscriminately shot dead eight civilians, while dozens of people were left with life-threatening injuries.
Though Mnangagwa instituted a commission of inquiry to probe circumstances around the death of civilians, he was roundly condemned by the international community for the state’s heavy-handed approach to containing dissent.
Notably, the United States government and the European Union expressed concern that Harare, after the departure of former strongman Mugabe, was rapidly regressing into the dark past of unconstitutionalism and the breakdown of the rule of law.
Under Mugabe’s 37 years in power, Zimbabwe had degenerated into a pariah state, isolated from the international community. Mnangagwa rose to power through a military coup amid promises that he would reintegrate Harare into the community of nations by embracing sweeping political and economic reforms.
However, the killing of civilians by the millitary on August 1 and January this year has dampened confidence at home and abroad in the government’s commitment to upholding the rule of law and civil liberties.
Political analyst Maxwell Saungweme says Mnangagwa, who dramatically swept into office on the back of a coup that toppled Mugabe in 2017, is not sincere in his rhetoric about reform and to end Zimbabwe’s two decades of isolation from the international community.
“Re-engagement conditions include protection of human rights, upholding the rule of law, following due process, respecting political and civil liberties, as well as political and economic reforms,” Saungweme said. “So you cannot say we are open for business and re-engaging, while doing everything to eviscerate the process of re-engagement.”
Last week, the European Parliament expressed “grave concern” over the tainted track record of Mnangagwa, nearly 15 months after wresting power from Mugabe, and implored Harare to return to the rule of law.
“Whereas the riot police responded with excessive violence and human rights abuses, including the use of live ammunition, arbitrary arrests, abductions, the raiding of medical facilities treating victims of the repression, fast-tracking and mass trials of those arrested, the torturing of people under arrest, cases of rape and the destruction of private and public property…”
“Urges the Zimbabwean authorities to put an immediate end to abuses by security forces and to promptly and impartially investigate all allegations of excessive use of force by police and state officials in order to establish individual responsibilities, with a view to ensuring accountability; recalls that the country’s constitution establishes an independent body to investigate complaints of police and military misconduct, but that the government has yet to set it up,” the European Parliament said in a statement last week.
Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said that Mnangagwa, for long Mugabe’s trusted enforcer, was relying on the state security apparatus to consolidate his grip on power, amid uncertainty around his turbulent rule.
“On the contrary, the utterances confirm that Mnangagwa has been at the centre of the securocrats since independence perpetrating state-sponsored violence. There is also a sense of panic on his part; what makes him say such things? Is it a fact that the state is imploding? It gives an impression of turmoil (building up) around the centre of power,” Mandaza said.