In the face of political threats, President Mugabe’s government has fallen back on its strategy of arresting critics. But the opposition insists it will not be intimidated.
As Pastor Evan Mawarire re-entered Zimbabwe at the start of February, he was hoping for an uneventful end to his journey. After six months in self-imposed exile in the US, the activist who inspired the opposition #ThisFlag movement intended to return home quickly and quietly.
But it was not to be. As Mawarire landed at Harare Airport, he was immediately whisked away by nine Central Intelligence Officers. He was arrested and, amongst other things, now faces charges of subverting a constitutionally-elected government, an offence which carries a minimum 20-year jail term.
Mawarire’s experience was widely covered, but he is just the latest in a long and growing list of Zimbabwean activists facing charges after speaking out against President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF administration.
In the past few months, there has been a notable escalation of arrests of outspoken individuals, and with the 2018 elections on the horizon, human rights groups warn that things are set to get worse.
Cycle of abuse
In many ways, Mugabe is facing one of his most fragile moments since coming to power 37 years ago. The economy is in free fall. There are internal divisions within the ruling ZANU-PF. And when the election rolls by, the 93-year-old leader’s age and health will prevent him from embarking on any kind of vigorous campaign.
Moreover, his former vice-president Joice Mujuru is currently discussing a coalition with long-time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. And last year, in part triggered by Mawarire’s activism, Zimbabwe saw several widespread protests against the government.
In the face of all these threats, Mugabe’s government has fallen back on its tried and tested strategy of jailing critics. This is a tactic familiar to the administration and one that it typically ratchets up as elections approach.
“Zimbabwe has had this cyclical human rights abuse since 2000,” says Fortune Gwaze, a political researcher at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute. “We have a hybrid regime which subscribes to democracy but does not believe in a level electoral field.”
As well as Mawarire, the list of individuals that have recently seen the inside of a cell includes figures such as Linda Masarira, Acie Lumumba, Denford Ngadziore, Whatmore Makokoba, Promise Mkwananzi and Stan Zvorwadza.
It is also includes another pastor, Phillip Mugadza, who was arrested in January for prophesying that Mugabe will die this October. Mugadza was initially charged with undermining the authority of the president, but his alleged crime was changed to “insulting people of a certain race” after prosecutors claimed he insulted the Christian religion and African traditions by breaking the taboo of predicting someone’s death.
In the name of the law
Speaking about the increase of arrests, Supa Mandiwanzira, Minister for Information Communication Technology, emphasises the importance of the law.
“It is very important that the world understands that Zimbabwe is very serious about the rule of law,” he says. “It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you are a politician, a traditional leader, a businessman or a church leader. If you break the law, it will take its course.”
But many human rights bodies in the country believe that it is the arrests of activists have been in contravention of Zimbabwe’s legal protections.
“The government of Zimbabwe is unnecessarily blemishing its already questionable human rights record by holding citizens in jail for solely expressing political opinions,” says Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), a body that monitors rights abuses.
Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Southern Africa, calls the situation “worrying”, saying that: “These charges are designed to stop human rights activism and to punish them for speaking out about the declining human rights situation.”
Meanwhile, the US embassy in Harare issued a statement in the wake of Mawarire and Mugadza’s arrests, saying: “We fear these recent actions will further limit the right of Zimbabweans to exercise their Constitutionally-protected freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.”
“The will arrest some but not all”
Amongst the many individuals now facing trial, some such as Promise Mkwananzi of the #Tajamuka movement, believe the cases against them will crumble in court because they lack merit.
But others such as Mawarire, who is out on bail, are preparing for the worst. He reveals that he is in the process of recruiting others who could step into his shoes to organise protests in pursuit of “the dream” in case he faces a long jail sentence.
Either way, observers such as Gwaze suggest that this is just the start of the government’s clampdown and that it is likely to extend its repression even further as the elections get nearer.
“As political temperatures go some decibels up, opposition key figures will soon be arrested and their rallies banned,” he says.
Despite this, many activists and opposition leaders insist that they will not cower in the face of government threats. They say that they will continue to protest, mobilise and speak out for as long as it takes.
“This is vintage ZANU-PF, and the message coming is out of this is that ZANU-PF will go for broke in the campaign ahead of the next election,” says opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who has been subjected to government repression for the past two decades. “The world must brace for impunity and violence against the innocent of our country.”
“They will arrest some but not all individuals. We will continue fighting for justice.”