There is mounting evidence showing that governments in southern Africa are increasingly cracking down on dissent by using excessive force to suppress public criticism of their failure to protect human rights, especially the rights of the poor and economically vulnerable during the Covid-19 lockdown measures.
The scale of police brutality has prompted us to release this follow-up article on the impact of lockdown measures on human rights and other forms of democracy, including the right to protest or demonstrate.
On 1 May 2020, we published an article focusing on this, titled Is Covid-19 in danger of killing electoral democracy in southern Africa, exploring how southern African countries are responding to the dual objectives of ensuring that measures to protect people from the pandemic do not negatively affect human rights and the strengthening of electoral democracy.
Immediately after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic on 11 March, frightened and insecure citizens were willing to accept strong central government reaction to protect them from Covid-19, including restrictions on some of their usual rights for the common good.
Virtually all governments across the region took drastic measures through lockdowns supported by emergency or state of disaster legal frameworks.
When these lockdowns came into force it became obvious that they had not been thought through properly, were disproportionately affecting the poor and economically vulnerable, and had magnified existing inequalities and economic injustices and, above all, had resulted in police brutality.
Critics argued that several fundamental human rights are being violated in southern Africa including the freedom and security of persons, of expression, of movement and residence, rights to privacy and access to information, among others.
The disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 measures on the poor demonstrated that civil and political rights are as important as economic and social rights and are mutually reinforcing. The poor, who were forced to go out of their homes to look for food and livelihood, were the ones who came face to face with the might of the police and army.
For example, in a response to a 5 May 2020 Judicial Inspectorate on Correctional Services (JICS) visit to a Johannesburg Correctional facility, Arthur Fraser, the National Commissioner of Correctional Services, conceded that the awaiting-trial prisons were overstretched by more than 100% of their holding capacity and that some of the overcrowding is directly attributable to the arbitrary arrests and detentions that have increased as a result of the security services enforcing the Covid-19 lockdown measures.
Police brutality in Zimbabwe
Thus it is that basic human rights are being undermined under the guise of tackling the pandemic.
Democracy and public participation are put in peril.
An example of the authorisation of the use of force in the lockdown regulatory framework is Malawi’s declaration of a 30-day state of disaster that allows national security apparatus to enforce the restrictions on gatherings.
Malawi heads to the polls in less than two months in afresh presidential election following the annulment of the 2019 election by the country’s constitutional court.
Despite the risks associated with Covid-19, the country’s presidential campaign is in full swing. From public meetings, publicity caravans and door-to-door visits – the electoral frenzy crosses the country, as if the novel coronavirus pandemic did not exist.
Some members of the opposition are questioning the existence of Covid-19 insisting that the infection figures are just a political ploy by the government “to stop the election from happening”. The Health Ministry principal secretary, Dan Namarika, has raised concern that the huge political gatherings defeat the fight against the pandemic, while the WHO has urged politicians to ensure that social distancing is observed and encouraged them to issue free masks to rally attendees.
Similar provisions are being abused in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
On 12 May, the Zimbabwe Republic Police reportedly pounced on a flash demonstration organised by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance youth leaders in Warren Park, Harare, and arrested three young female leaders, Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova and Cecilia Chimbiri. Joana Mamombe is the female youngest Member of Parliament in the current Zimbabwe Parliament.
The protest was against the government’s failure to put in place necessary social safety nets for the poor and vulnerable citizens.
Initial efforts to locate the trio by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights were futile. Then, as described by Zimbabwean activist Thandekile Moyo, it emerged that state security agents who released them more than 24 hours later had abducted them. The trio revealed gory details of the torture and sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of the state security agents including gun barrels being shoved into their private parts.
Why only young female leaders were picked after the demonstration remains a mystery but also highlights the additional dangers women activists face on a daily basis in southern Africa.
The sadistic and complicit nature of the Zimbabwe authorities and seeming acquiescence with the abduction and torture was betrayed by a tweet that the Deputy Minister of Information, Energy Mutodi, wrote on 20 May, saying:
“… details emerge MDC youths Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova & Cecilia Chimbiri went out for a romantic night to Bindura with their lovers who are artisanal miners. They parked their car at a police station for safety but tragedy struck when they demanded foreign currency for services”.
It is difficult to imagine how a government minister can be this callous. Then, as if this was not enough, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Justice Ziyambi Ziyambi has threatened to prosecute the three female opposition members, sensationally alleging, “I don’t believe the abduction is genuine.”
Political analysts have dismissed attempts by the government to deny their involvement. Dr Alex Magaisa, a prominent lawyer and constitutional expert, said:
“For the state to turn back and deny that the three women were not in its custody is not only false but disingenuous and dishonest… The fact that the three women were subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment while in the hands of the state is a severe indictment on the Zimbabwean government.”
As if to add salt to injury, on 16 May after their release President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced that “Zimbabwe will, therefore, continue on the Level 2 lockdown for an indefinite period. We shall have regular two-week interval reviews to assess progress or lack of it.”
In response, leader of the MDC Alliance, Nelson Chamisa, accused President Mnangagwa, having this to say:
“Without consultation with us all, the indefinite extension of the lockdown opens a treacherous avenue to arbitrary rule. It indefinitely suspends the exercise of civil and political rights which are necessary checks and balances on the excesses of governmental power.”
On 21 May President Emmerson Mnangagwa further condemned protests, saying, “We must never endanger the lives of our people through illegal, reckless and unwarranted demonstrations for political grandstanding. We are one people, one nation, one Zimbabwe.”
The manipulation of Covid-19 lockdown measures to achieve political outcomes is therefore manifest in Zimbabwe.
On 18 April, the Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE) reported that two women from Cowdray Park in Bulawayo were brutally assaulted, handcuffed, arrested and detained overnight for allegedly breaching lockdown regulations. The women, who sustained terrible injuries, insisted that they had done nothing wrong as they had only gone to a local supermarket to buy food. The case is currently being heard at the Western Commonage Magistrate’s Court.
According to CITE, over 25,000 people have so far been arrested across the country for allegedly flouting lockdown rules.
The Zimbabwean government is notorious for using violence against civil society and members of the opposition. Despite President Mnangagwa being the chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) organ on Politics, Defence and Security, and widespread local and international condemnation, it continues unabated. All this raises concern that a lasting effect of the Covid-19 pandemic could be a consolidation of authoritarianism, with possible dire effects on the future of participatory democracy in the era of Covid-19 and beyond.
Arbitrary arrests in South Africa
In South Africa, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), which monitors police abuse, has reportedly registered 39 complaints against police wrongdoing, with six incidents of “death as a result of police action” during the first week of the lockdown, and is investigating 13 complaints related to police shooting and 14 of police assault.
On 18 May, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities in South Africa to conduct a swift investigation into the beating of journalist Paul Nthoba by police from Ficksburg police station after he took photos during Covid-19 operations. This type of brave reporting by journalists is vital because, according to Democracy Works Foundation, more people died from police and military heavy handedness than from the coronavirus itself in the first few days of the lockdown.
In one province alone, the Eastern Cape, 18,465 people have been charged for having contravened the lockdown regulations.
A number of videos have circulated showing the police and army assaulting people.
In Hillbrow in the Johannesburg inner city, police sjambokked people for allegedly defying lockdown rules, while in Soweto, soldiers have forced people to do push-ups. One policeman has been arrested for the killing of a citizen who was shot dead by police after following the man from a bar to his house.
Police arrests are having an impact on overcrowding in prisons.
A JICS report, dated 8 May 2020, following a prison inspection done on 5 May 2020 in Johannesburg shows a link between police arbitrary arrests and detentions of poor and economically vulnerable people.
The report states:
“Nationally, while the percentage of sentenced inmates has reduced since 2018, the number of remand detainees has risen by 4.93% over each of the last two years. This figure has been worsened by the current Covid-19 lockdown. From 1-30 April the total DCS remand detainee population across all regions increased by 5,319. A total of 4,025 detainees (73.82% of all detainees detained with the option of bail) are unable to pay a fine of R1,000 or less. This problem has been exacerbated by the fines issued for violating lockdown regulations.”
Human rights activists on trial in Eswatini, Mozambique
A piece of good news came from Eswatini after Goodwill Sibiya was released from jail following one year in detention awaiting trial for challenging the Eswatini government in court papers in May 2019.
The legal challenge resulted in him facing sedition charges and being accused or belonging to “terrorist groups”. The prosecution withdrew sedition charges in a case where Sibiya was represented by esteemed human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko who himself spent two years in jail before his trial was quashed in 2016.
That a person could spend one year in jail without trial shows how the legal system in Eswatini has been weaponised against legitimate opponents and as a threat to civic space.
Such is the scale of judicial persecution in Eswatini that the Committee to Protect Journalists called on the police “to stop intimidating and harassing local journalists for reporting critically about King Mswati III” and to allow journalists “to write freely without the threat of treason charges” for writing about government response to Covid-19.
Mozambique: The much anticipated trial of members of a special elite police force that gunned down a human rights defender in broad daylight during elections in Nov 2019 started on 12 May in Gaza Mozambique.
The police hit squad members were only arrested because “local police, apparently unaware of their identity” and mission gave chase causing the killers to crash into other cars.
Despite the police brutality in enforcing Covid-19 measures in Mozambique, this passes as a good development given that the scourge of impunity for serious crimes and human rights violations is part of the national reality.
Leading human rights activists Professor Adriano Nuvunga’s Centre for Development and Democracy (CDD) exclaimed that “the long struggle to hold the state accountable has begun”.
Despite the police heavy handedness in implementing the Covid-19 measures CDD sees an opportunity for young people to “wrest away a seat at the decision-making table in this country… The pandemic of Covid-19 is the greatest opportunity for young people to show their true character, unleash their innovative skills, rally the power behind their numbers, display their physical energy, and take centre-stage in the fight against this pandemic, and win themselves permanent seats in decision-making forums all across the country.”
The one area that has remained of serious concern in terms of the climate of lockdown from access by human rights defenders, civil society and journalists is the northern province of Cabo Delgado where there are gas and oil discoveries. An insurgency is happening there but the government has completely sealed the area from access for information to be gathered and disseminated.
Such is the situation that “17 civil society groups sent a joint letter to Mozambican President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi “expressing concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in northern Cabo Delgado province, including the enforced disappearance of radio journalist Ibraimo Abú Mbaruco”.
Suppressing freedom of expression and the media in Zambia and Tanzania:
Laura Miti, a leading human rights defender, tweeted that there was a riot by residents of Nakonde on 20 May and the response by the Muchinga Police Chief was that a political party “manipulated residents of Nakonde to riot yesterday in order to frustrate the valiant efforts to fight Covid”.
According to the Diamond TV Facebook page, nine people were arrested and detained “in connection with the riots that happened over the lockdown amid the coronavirus. The residents staged protests claiming that they are hunger stricken due to the lockdown. One protester was shot and is admitted to Nakonde General Hospital.”
There was a furore when cadres of the ruling Patriotic Front were accused of invading radio stations that are giving coverage to the opposition UPND leader, Hakainde Hichilema. When confronted as to whether these disruptions were part of state policy, Dora Siliya, the government chief spokesperson, said on 19 May, “Just like we do not want PF cadres to break the law against Chinsali and Mupika radio, we also don’t want media houses to break the law.”
According to Laura Miti the following radio stations have been disrupted by Patriotic Front cadres during this Covid-19 period: Feel Free radio station, Power FM, 5FM radio, Muchinga Radio, Radio Maria.
This systematic and sustained attack on free media shows that the militias who religiously carry out these attacks act with the acquiescence of the state are now preventing anyone who questions the government’s measures on Covid-19 under the guise of concern about the spread of the virus.
Tanzania: President of Tanzania John Magufuli is notorious for clamping down on civic space and human rights defenders; the current detention of Tito Magoti continues to demonstrate the weaponisation of the law in that country.
Attacks on journalists also continue.
The Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) reports that two Kenyan journalists, Muthathia Shadrack Kareria and Clifton Isindu, were arrested in the “no man’s land” at Namanga, and subsequently detained at Longido Police Station, Arusha Region, Tanzania on Saturday 16 May 2020, allegedly for interviewing people about the status of Covid-19. On 19 May both were convicted and sentenced by the Magistrates’ Court in Arusha to pay a fine amounting to two million Tanzanian shillings or three years’ imprisonment.
They paid the fine and were deported to Kenya. The two journalists work with Elimu TV, an educational digital television station in Kenya, which has a sub office at the Namanga border of Kenya and Tanzania.
The needless arrest and detention of people in Tanzania, creating more dangers of exposure to Covid-19, resulted in a civil society joint letter by 20 civil society organisations demanding immediate and urgent measures to protect the rights of prison detainees in Tanzania.
Conclusion: Limited oversight mechanisms
The lockdown restrictions imposed throughout the region appear to have been successful so far in achieving their purpose of containing the spread of Covid-19.
Yet most African governments have also been accused of abusing the pandemic as an excuse to cling to power, prevent dissent, and violate people’s rights to free expression, privacy, and access to information. Legislators and judiciaries have failed to oversee and check executive actions.
Across the region, security forces have consistently disregarded the United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Southern African governments also have legal obligations, which they are ignoring, under several international and African human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).
Instead, the lockdown measures have been a perfect and convenient tool by authorities to harass political opponents, clamp down on civil society and abuse the rights of citizens.
These actions have tended to worsen with the subsequent extensions of states of emergency or disaster. Bereft of any capacity to assist even the most vulnerable with food, authorities have no other response to the serious questions that people are asking and are thus responding with brute force.
With the rest of the world concentrating on their own domestic issues arising out of the pandemic, southern African governments seem to be banking on this lack of attention to consolidate their power by closing the already limited democratic space.
The concerns we raise reinforce the remarks by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, that: “Emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power. They should be used to cope effectively with the pandemic – nothing more, nothing less.” DM/MC
Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the Technical and Strategy Advisor of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.
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