Op-Ed

Torture and repression continue under Emmerson Mnangagwa’s iron-fisted, ‘corrupt’ rule

By Tendai Biti 10 June 2020

epa07514176 Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, centre, inspects a guard of honour at the National Sports Stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe, 18 April 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

Since Zimbabwe‘s military coup in November 2017, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF has taken the country to new and unprecedented depths of collapse, capture and coercion. Zimbabwe has backslid into a comatose, tin-pot republic: unemployment is now at 95%, and inflation is at more than 700%, the world’s second-highest rate after Venezuela.

A week is a long time in President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe.

On Friday, 5 June 2020, I led a group of MDC-Alliance leaders to our party HQ in Nelson Mandela Avenue in Harare to demand that the police grant us access to our own building. We were not armed, we were peaceful, and we bore no intention other than that of occupying our own headquarters, which had been taken over by the security forces in the name of a fake “MDC” faction they control.

Tendai Biti, Vice-President of the MDC-Alliance. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

For this we were arrested and spent a day in prison in foul conditions, before being charged and released on bail.

This is part of a steady and hastening trend towards failure in Zimbabwe. This event should remind the international community – along with the southern African region – that Zanu-PF is not a reformist government, which several of the invertebrates among them prefer to believe. Nor should they ease up pressure on Harare to adhere to democratic standards.

Since Zimbabwe‘s military coup in November 2017, Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF has taken the country to new and unprecedented depths of collapse, capture and coercion.

In under two years of his rule, Zimbabwe has backslid into a comatose, tin-pot republic dominated by massive economic mismanagement. Unemployment is now at 95%, and inflation is over 700%, the world’s second-highest rate after Venezuela.

At the epicentre of Mnangagwa‘s failed economics are two things: the first is the inability of the government to live within its own means.

Billions have been spent outside the budget leading to perennial huge budget deficits that have forced the Central Bank to print money to cover the gap.

The second cause of failure is the government’s mismanagement of the exchange rate. In 2019 the government prematurely introduced its own currency. Without sound economic fundamentals to back it up, the New Zimbabwean Dollar collapsed, resulting in serious market distortions and an explosion in black market activities.

In the shops, basic commodities are in short supply, particularly sugar, cooking fat and the country’s staple, mealie meal.

Fuel queues now snake for kilometres. There have been incessant power cuts lasting up to 18 hours, particularly before Zimbabwe imposed its Covid-19 lockdown at the end of March.

As the economy implodes, Mnangagwa and his lot are presiding over the most corrupt and extractive period since Zimbabwe’s independence 40 years ago.

Billions of dollars are siphoned off from the state, in vehicles and companies linked to Mnangagwa, his family and business associates.

Even as the lives of average Zimbabweans turn to dust, the elite continues to milk the system through their control of foreign exchange and money supply, agricultural subsidies (which they call “command agriculture”), fuel procurement, the mining of commodities (notably diamonds, platinum, chrome and gold), and public sector procurement.

As bad as the mismanagement and abuse of state resources are, Mnangagwa’s human rights record is an even worse disaster for the country and should motivate all democrats to stand shoulder to shoulder with Zimbabwe’s opposition. The world already knew of Mnangagwa’s dark past at the centre of the 1980s Gukurahundi genocide, which saw the murder of more than 20,000 people in the southern and south-western parts of the country.

In the immediate wake of the 2018 general election, the world was reminded of his ruthlessness when eight protestors were shot dead by the military in Harare in broad daylight.

Then, in January 2019, 19 people were shot dead by the military following protests against the massive hikes in fuel prices. During that same period, women were raped and many homes were torched. Some 600 people were arrested, prompting Amnesty International to observe:

“Authorities routinely suppressed the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, using lethal and excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrations. The police, army and intelligence operatives arbitrarily arrested several protesters to silence and intimidate anyone suspected of participating, assisting protesters or organising demonstrations.”

In August 2019, following the threat to protest by the Movement for Democratic Change, where I serve as vice-president, 42 young people were abducted. Several were severely tortured.

Three months later, a young vendor, Hilton Tafadzwa Tamangani, was heavily tortured by the police and died in a remand prison on 18 October 2019.

The abuses come thick and fast, and with a level of dehumanisation and violence which has become Zanu-PF’s trademark. Just three weeks ago, three young female activists, Joanna Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri, and Netsai Marowa, were abducted, tortured and sexually abused by state security agents following their participation in a street protest in one of Harare’s suburbs.

Among the methods of torture they used was the shoving of gun barrels into the girls’ bodies, and forced consumption of each other’s urine and faeces.

But the opposition continues to struggle on, in spite of the risks and intimidation.

Craving the flow of international funds that recognition of Zimbabwe’s “democracy” could bring, Zanu-PF has attempted to use a spurious court judgement to construct a Trojan Horse within the MDC-Alliance, forcing us to hand over the leadership of the party to a rival that stood against us, and lost, in the 2018 general election.

As if that was not enough, on 3 June 2020, the military physically seized our party’s head office, Morgan Richard Tsvangirai House, and physically handed control of the premises, located, ironically, in Nelson Mandela Avenue, to the rival beneficiaries.

My mission last Friday was to gain access to our own building.

At first, the police were polite and civil. Then our group began singing a popular liberation song.

Without warning or notice, or without being informed of any charge, the men and women in our group were arrested. Bundled into a police truck, we were ferried to Harare Central police station.

No restraint was exercised. The police were particularly rough and insensitive to two of my colleagues, 70-year-old Senator David Chimhini and young Lovemore Chinoputsa, who kept on demanding to know why we were being arrested.

The police wore no gloves. There was no physical distancing in the trucks, no sanitisers and no temperature checks.

At Harare Central police station we saw the grisly intestines of state failure and the fingerprints of 40 years of decay and dilapidation under Zanu-PF’s misrule.

First, we were placed in a tiny room, replete with a broken ceiling, broken chairs, an old Remington typewriter fit for a museum, and tattered police uniforms hanging from the door. It was a scene from a bad Western, one where the bandits seem to hold all the cards.

We were made to wait for hours before a Superintendent Majongosi arrived to record our names, identity and phone numbers, and our addresses. He was followed, later, by another officer advising that a charge of public disorder was being laid against our group.  

Again, there was no physical distancing in this little room, nor were any sanitisers or face masks made available. We stayed there for several hours. No food was offered to us, despite complaints raised by Senator Chimiinhi who notified the police that he was diabetic and suffered from hypertension.

Our lawyers, Beatrice Mtetwa, Alec Muchadehama and Jeremiah Bhamu, later arrived and insisted that we either be released as we had not committed any offence, or be released into his custody.

The police kept repeating that the matter was not in their hands and that they were “consulting”, which we took as a euphemism that they were seeking directives from Mnangagwa’s office.

Around 20:00 we were transferred to the notorious law and order department and dumped in office 93. No lights or plugs worked in that room either.

There were other prisoners present, including a policeman, Shungudzemoyo Kache, who had been charged with sedition for allegedly calling Mnangagwa “a used condom”. In the room, lying on the filthy floor, was MDC-Alliance activist Womberai Nhende. He had huge gashes in his leg after having been tortured and assaulted by the police. He was struggling to breathe and was shivering.

The police did not care and no medical attention was offered to him until our lawyers insisted that he be taken to a hospital. The men among us were led to a sewer masquerading as a toilet with dirty water running on the ground and an ancient urinal.

There was no running water, toilet paper or even electricity in this toilet. There were no sanitisers. The flushing systems were not even working.

These are the toilets reserved for day-to-day use by police officers.

Later that evening, charges were formally laid against us – we were accused of having committed a criminal nuisance by disturbing the peace while singing in Nelson Mandela Avenue.

In any normal criminal system, such a charge is a petty misdemeanour where one simply pays a fine. Despite this, the police proceeded to take our fingerprints.

Ordinarily, this process involves the accused person placing his thumbnails and palm on a metal plate brushed with black ink. Not at this police station. Instead, ink was poured onto a kitchen sponge, which was then used to daub ink onto our thumbnails and palms. The same sponge was used for all six of us.

During this time, we were squeezed into two small airless offices between an army of police detectives – who were behaving as if we had just bombed the Twin Towers – and a mass of civilians which included other accused and our own lawyers.

The process was long and tortuous and ran into the night. A decision was then taken to detain us in the cells.

Through our lawyers, Thabani Mpofu and Sylvester Hashiti (the former who, only the day before, had been taken to court to answer some or other concocted charges after spending two nights in police custody), we demanded that the cells in which we were to be detained be cleaned and sanitised.

We refused to move from the tiny office. Our resistance did not last long. We were threatened with teargas and bundled downstairs, where we found ourselves in a room with hundreds of other prisoners.

These prisoners sat on the floor while we were allowed to sit on benches. Most of the inmates were people who had been arrested for failing to wear masks and had refused to pay “fines” to the arresting officers. To heap irony on the ridiculous, once again there was no social distancing, no temperature checks and no provisions of sanitisers. They took our details once more and we were each told to name the charge we were being detained for.

After this process, we were taken to the actual cells where we were each given a small piece of paper with our detention number and also the bag number for our possessions. My bag number was 34.

We were then instructed to surrender our possessions. They took our shoes and phones and left us with a minimum of clothes, despite the cold.

The cells were a house of horror. We were not provided blankets or mats on which to sleep.  

The toilets were messy and stuffed with torn copies of The Herald, the state-owned newspaper, for which there is no better use. There was no water. We were forced to walk in filth without shoes. We knew we were not safe and were seriously compromising our health. We hardly slept.

We woke up early in the morning and were grateful to receive food from our relatives. My own poor mother and brother were allowed into the cells, and it pained me to see that she had been crying all night and had barely slept herself.

Around 10:00 we were taken out of the cells. This was the only time that temperature checks were carried out on us and we were provided with sanitisers. No food or masks were provided and physical distancing was not observed.

We were taken in a van surrounded by armed vehicles to the Harare Magistrates’ Court where hundreds of our supporters were outnumbered by riot squad police and soldiers.

Our lawyers were already there after having been told the previous night that court would start at 08:30.

We waited in the van for an hour or so outside the court, before learning from our lawyers that there was no senior prosecutor who could handle our case, notwithstanding the minor nature of the charge.

Eventually, without explanation and without our lawyers being notified, we were driven back to Harare Central Prison.

It was farcical and surreal. Like a poorly scripted Mr Bean movie, minus the comedy. Back at the prison, a very apologetic policeman advised us that they had been instructed to add more serious charges against us.

I suspected that they would add treason and terrorism to the charges.

We were presented with new statements which we refused to sign. We would not legitimise illegitimacy.

Well into the afternoon, we were taken back to Harare Magistrates’ Court. By that time, much of the crowd that had gathered in the morning had disappeared.

We were then led into the remand court, court 6, which was presided over by a magistrate. Through our lawyers, we made complaints about the manner of our arrest, the delays associated with the court sitting, and most importantly, the dangerous unhealthy conditions we were exposed to at the police station.

The magistrate ordered an inquiry into our complaints. We were granted bail of a thousand dollars each and were whisked downstairs to the police detention centre.

The smell of urine dominates court 6 and the passage to the underground cells. The building itself is old and dilapidated. The passages are poorly lit, slippery and dirty.

Downstairs, tens of other prisoners sat on the floor waiting for the trucks that would ferry them to remand prison.

I have gone through this process countless times in the past after being arrested on spurious political charges. But one never gets used to torture and ill-treatment.

We were so grateful when bail was eventually paid and the six of us walked out of that prison carrying nothing but our freedom. We were dirty, hungry, and had been physically and mentally abused, but we were relieved to be alive.

Despite our terrible experience, we were the lucky ones. Many have died, many have been tortured and many are fearful that they will become victims of this dysfunctional, anti-democratic state.

My appeal to the world is that the lives of black Zimbabweans should also matter. DM

Tendai Biti is the Vice-President of the MDC-Alliance and the co-author of  “Democracy Works: Rewiring Politics to Africa’s Advantage”. He was the finance minister in Zimbabwe’s unity government between 2009-13.

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