COVID-19

The politics of selective condemnation: ‘Silencing the guns’ in Zimbabwe during a pandemic

By Mandipa Ndlovu 4 August 2020

The AU’s continued silence s inconsistent with the promotion of instruments such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Zimbabwe is a party, says the writer. (Photo: Tafadzwa Ufumeli / Getty Images)

The Zimbabwean government must not be allowed to falsely project the will of the people under the guise of public protection by arbitrarily enforcing new laws for elitist gain.

The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified the precariousness of purportedly democratic states which, though not classified as states in conflict, exist within the parameters of negative peace where social protections are secondary to securing elite interests.

Likewise, occurring during 2020 when the African Union (AU) has set this year aside “to silence the guns” in a bid to create “conducive conditions for Africa’s development”, the Covid-19 pandemic has further illuminated the need to appreciate systemic, as well as physical representations of “guns” as ammunition which bear hindrance to the most vulnerable groups in our societies.

Systemic “guns” as ammunition must be understood to vest themselves against African citizens through clientelism, and the manipulation of state institutions to support it – the condemnation of which are often muted.

Violence in all its forms must subsequently be understood if its cyclical occurrences on the continent are to be broken. Such nuance to the notion that combative conflict is one of the biggest challenges for the implementation of Agenda 2063 is needed to urgently rethink the continent’s approach to promoting social protections and ensuring the universality of human rights. 

As countries continue to battle the global health pandemic, the parallel governance pandemic has amplified systemic ills of socio-economic magnitudes. These have left the ordinary African citizen as the clear “other” in social contracts with governments who are meant to safeguard their existences. The disconnection caused by the inherent othering of elitist approaches to social justice continues to amplify the inequalities that existed prior to Covid-19.

At this crossroad, citizen-led pushback against corruption, abuses of executive powers, restrictions on civic freedoms, disinvestment in infrastructure – and other human rights abuses – have reverberated as exposés and protests across Africa.

Securitising emergencies

Beyond the guise of public safety during the current health pandemic, the restrictions on fundamental freedoms and human rights abuses imposed by governments through states of emergency – proclaimed or de facto in effect – have further illuminated the concerning authority of repressive governments. In states like Zimbabwe where well-documented, colonially entrenched legacies of state-sponsored organised violence and torture continue to quell citizen activism to safeguard elite interests, this trend has only been exacerbated under the façade of public protection.

These are the foundations of the “dual pandemic” many countries like Zimbabwe find themselves in, as noted by Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism. During the current health pandemic, the coexistence of such systems of governance at the interface of civil unrest has been met with securitised state responses, whose normalisation during this period further entrenches their permanence post-pandemic.

Without clear sunset clauses, securitised measures are likely to further shrink the powers of civilian oversight bodies and the independence of courts, thus catalysing a further push away from democracy.

Protests concerning food insecurity, crippling elitist accumulation and collapses in institutions, among other social ills, are protected both by Zimbabwe’s constitution and under international principles concerning the universality of human rights. Recent organised instances of violence through abductions, arrests, torture, extension of remand dates, among others, are concerning.

Where security agents are required to step in, there is room for measured coordination, compliance through trust rather than force and the respect of the rule of law, which remain key guiding principles of engagement. Mirrored against the UN Siracusa Principles, which serve as a guideline to the ideal balance between human rights and tackling public emergencies and threats such as the Covid-19 pandemic, Zimbabwe’s responses to the protests and exposés during the pandemic have not been proportionate nor supported by robust public health plans and safety nets in order to serve public interest.

Any new securitised responses to the Covid-19 pandemic must be necessary and non-discriminatory, within the confines of the rule of law. Likewise, all limitations of rights are to be considered fair and reasonable under the terms of sections 58, 59, 86 and 87 of Zimbabwe’s constitution – which speak to the fundamental existences and limitations of human rights, and freedoms in the country.

The Zimbabwean government’s push to pass Constitutional Amendment Bill No.2 – whose revisions would consolidate the power of the executive while limiting the independence of the judiciary without public consultation – are both worrying and unnecessary at this time.

Yet, protests to these measures have been met with arrests of young activists such as Namatai Kwekweza and Vongai Zimudzi who, on 19 June 2020, were arrested for intending to hand over a petition against the bill to  Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Ziyambi Ziyambi.

In what Amnesty International has termed a witch-hunt, journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume also remain in police custody on charges of “inciting violence” after exposing high-level corruption regarding personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement, and calling for peaceful protests on 31 July 2020, respectively.

The brutal crackdown on civic rights by state security agents as has been seen through the arbitrary arrests, torture, abduction and intimidation of journalists, activists, and members of the opposition who dare speak out about corruption. Where the targeted persons cannot be found, their families and work associates are targeted.

The arrests of Tsitsi Dangarembga, Fadzayi Mahere, Panashe Sivindani, Judy Barnes, Jessica Drury, Nyasha Musandu, Terry Guta, Loveridge Chinzvende and many others on 31 July 2020 for allegedly “inciting violence” while holding peaceful, physically distanced protests across Zimbabwe remains unacceptable.

Henry Chivhanga, director of the Disability Amalgamation Community Trust, for instance, was arrested for “unnecessary movement” while staging his one-man protest against corruption on the same day. According to a tweet by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights on 1 August 2020, “[a]t least 60 people have been arrested ahead of or during the #31July protest… 16 people were injured requiring medical attention”.

Tawanda Muchehiw, 22, nephew of ZimLive editor Mduduzi Mathuthu (who has been in hiding since 30 July 2020), was abducted on 30 July 2020, tortured, and was then dumped near his home on the evening of 1 August 2020 after an application for a writ of habeas corpus was made by his lawyers. Upon receiving medical treatment for torture, doctors discovered severe damage to his kidneys.

As the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum reported on 1 August 2020, assaults against civilians by police officers and soldiers have been noted where: 

“In reported incidences, victims were assaulted with sjamboks, baton sticks, booted feet and fists. Many victims were women and children. The victims were assaulted at checkpoints and community boreholes whilst some were assaulted in their yards.” 

Governments must not be allowed to falsely project the will of the people under the guise of public protection by arbitrarily enforcing new laws for elitist gain.

However, noting the unfortunate state of Zimbabwe’s politics, Martin Rupiya and Knox Chitiyo highlight that as a characteristic of the state, “Zimbabwe’s politics [is] militarised, and military coercion [is] the currency of politics”. Resultantly, attempts at holding the Zimbabwean government accountable under human rights principles such as the Siracusa Principles, are opposed to the reasoning framework of the securitised state. It is here where the AU and Southern African Development Community (SADC) have critical roles to play.

External roles

During the pandemic, the AU has been scarcely found to condemn member states that subvert their citizens’ rights that further dislodge the progress of the continental peace and security agenda. This selective application of its critical voice, given its positionality, remains one of the AU’s biggest weaknesses.

A testament to this was the continental body’s 29 May 2020 condemnation of the murder of George Floyd in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, while remaining silent about the systemic use of organised violence and torture as well as sexual violence forced upon Zimbabwean activists Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, who were protesting food insecurity, less than a month later, on 10 June 2020.

Currently, 60% of Zimbabwe’s population is food insecure as the World Food Programme reports. With continued severe hunger expected in the coming 2020-2021 season, the UN agency reports that it will only reach “700,000 of 1.8 million of the intended recipients”.

The AU’s continued silence in condemning the systemic subversion of African citizens is inconsistent with the promotion of instruments such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Zimbabwe is a party. Such subjectivity continues to compromise the AU’s coordination of amplifying, and subsequently effecting, formidable peace and security efforts to prevent conflict and civic unrest.

Coupled with South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa as the sitting AU chairperson, there is a need to unmute such silences under South African leadership, whose human rights-based foreign policy has historically had a soft diplomacy approach to Zimbabwe.

From a regional perspective, states are particularly subject to external pressure to implement international norms being lobbied by friendly states. The mandate for the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Organ for Politics, Defence and Security is the promotion of peace and security under the preview of the rule of law in the region. In adherence to Article 16 of the protocol which establishes the AU Peace and Security Council, regional economic communities such as SADC are recognised as fundamental to acting on mechanisms for conflict prevention.

With the irony of Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa being the chairperson of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, it is a vital moment for the office of the executive secretary in the SADC Secretariat to support the people of Zimbabwe in calling out human rights abuses in the southern African country.

SADC and the AU were shamefully preceded by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on 10 June 2020 and 24 July 2020, in condemning arbitrary arrests, torture and abductions, being used as a “pattern in intimidation” to stifle civic freedoms.

Africans must not be seen as complacent in allowing the pandemic to be used as a cover-up or to further subvert human rights in other African states. 

Cyclical legacies

Systemic ammunition which continues to buttress targeted violence and socioeconomic subjugation in Zimbabwe is the replication of a traumatic past under Rhodesian rule. The ironic remnants of cyclical structural trauma continue to manifest in repressive reactions to securocrat opposition today. Left unaddressed, the transferability of this trauma will remain palpable in Zimbabwe’s society as sustainable economic opportunities and opportunities for human capacity development dwindle – all while cultures of elitist patron-client accumulation are further entrenched.

Additionally, the historical demonisation of African youth activists must not be allowed. Echoing Kwekweza’s sentiments, we cannot simply “educate the poverty and corruption away”. Africa’s development cannot exist while the systemic ammunition against citizens is in place. If the black (African) lives of their citizens mattered, the AU and its supporting regional bodies would not allow the reinforcement of the structural violence, and transfer the structural trauma their generation fought to gain independence from. 

The current struggle to salvage lives in fighting the pandemic, at the intersection of safeguarding livelihoods, must not distract from understanding the need to speak out against systems that support physical and structural guns. 

Relaying her arrest ordeal in a post originally penned on Facebook on 2 August 2020, Mahere noted that “when it comes to enforcing repression, all semblance of wanting to respect Covid-19 is thrown out the window”. She continues, “[t]he condition of the State, afraid and at war with citizens making legitimate demands [is] indeed a nervous one”.

Positivist lenses of viewing structural injustice, where one space of advocacy is amplified at the cost of another part of human existence, are simply not conducive to progress. Such approaches systemically entrench silences and reinvent the transferrable effects of violence and structural trauma. Systemic injustices overlap and they must be considered with intersectional lenses if Africa is to ever break cycles of societal tensions that result in conflict. DM/MC

Mandipa Ndlovu is an independent research analyst whose work looks at: gender justice, institutional reform in (post –) authoritarian governments, political economy, transitional justice, human capacity development, the rule of law, as well as legacies of violence and trauma in Africa. She seeks to understand the effects of the aforementioned on ordinary citizens at the intersection of sustainable governance strategies on the continent.

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