The fallout between the Zimbabwean government and Western nations over the arrest of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono (pictured) and opposition Transform Zimbabwe leader Jacob Ngarivhume has dealt a near-fatal blow to Harare’s international re-engagement drive, already weakened by the administration’s failure to implement far-reaching political and economic reforms.
Ngarivhume, who was organising a nationwide protest against corruption scheduled for today and Chin’ono were arrested by police last week over allegations of inciting violence and criminal abuse of social media. The arrests have been widely condemned, with the government accused of stifling freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest. Both have been remanded in custody until August 7.
The European Union, the United States and the United Nations, among many others, have voiced concern over the arrests which they say is a violation of civil liberties. The trenchant criticism dampens the government’s re-engagement initiative, a key deliverable of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration.
“We are concerned by the arrest of @daddyhope (Chin’ono) this morning and call for his immediate release. Journalism is not a crime but a crucial pillar of any democratic society and of the fight against corruption. Journalists and freedom of expression deserve protection,” the EU wrote on microblogging site Twitter.
The Dutch embassy in Zimbabwe also weighed in, tweeting that journalists should be allowed to do their work which is vital in the fight against corruption, adding that the arrest of Chin’ono “is part of a worrying trend against free speech in Zimbabwe”.
The US embassy in Harare added to the chorus of condemnation of the arrests, tweeting that activists such as Chin’ono and Ngarivhume had answered Mnangagwa’s call to help end corruption but were now being prosecuted instead of the culprits.
“The Zimbabwean government has denied Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume their freedom while the corrupt remain free. When will the government uphold the people’s constitutional rights to freedom of political expression and freedom of the press?” assistant secretary for the US Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs Tibor Nagy tweeted.
The United Kingdom minister for Africa, James Duddridge, who held a meeting recently with Foreign Affairs minister Sibusiso B Moyo where he expressed concern over human rights violations, also condemned the arrests.
“Concerned to hear Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume remain in custody in Harare. Urge authorities to uphold rights to media freedom and freedom of expression as set out in Zimbabwe’s constitution,” Duddridge tweeted. The government, which has been under pressure from restive citizens as a result of the continued deterioration of the economy and heightening repression, has accused Western nations of instigating what it has described as an illegal regime change agenda.
“Zimbabwe is keen to engage with all members of the community of nations, but will not surrender its sovereignty as a trade-off for this. All what Zimbabwe seeks is mutual respect and non-interference in its internal affairs,” Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa said at a press conference last weekend. “Going forward, government will not compromise on Zimbabwe’s national security and expects all foreign embassies hosted here to behave with propriety as set out in the Vienna Convention.”
Relations between Zimbabwe and Western capitals deteriorated this week with Zanu PF’s acting spokesperson Patrick Chinamasa on Monday telling journalists that US ambassador to Zimbabwe Brian Nichols is a “thug”, threatening to have him kicked out of the country. The Zimbabwean ambassador to the United States, Machivenyika Mapuranga has been summoned over Chinamasa’s remarks.
The language used by Chinamasa is similar to that of the late former president, Robert Mugabe, who in 2008 threatened to expel the then US ambassador, James McGee.
“He says he fought in Vietnam, but fighting in Vietnam does not give him the right to interfere in our domestic affairs,” Mugabe said of McGee when he formally launched his presidential run-off campaign. “I am just waiting to see if he makes one more step wrong. He will get out. As tall as he is, if he continues to do that I will kick him out of the country.”
The country’s hopes of re-engagement are dead in the water, according to political analyst and University of Zimbabwe professor Eldred Masunungure.
“This is very retrogressive by the government. For the so-called new dispensation, re-engagement was one of the central objectives of the government’s foreign policy but it is now really dead in the water. They are shooting themselves in the foot with a bazooka,” Masunungure said. “They are not calling on the government to implement the American or the Russian constitution but our own constitution which President Mnangagwa promised to uphold when he was sworn into office.”
Masunungure said it will be very difficult for the government to get its international re-engagement drive back on track.
The goodwill that Mnangagwa enjoyed at the initial stage has dissipated through his suppression of freedoms, according to political analyst Tawanda Zinyama.
“We were an inch away from successful re-engagement, but because of these events we are now hundreds of metres away,” Zinyama said. “The failure to respect human rights, freedom of association, which are enshrined in the constitution, has left a huge dent in the re-engagement efforts of Mnangagwa. The goodwill he used to enjoy is no longer there.”