Zimbabwe uses lockdown to undermine rule of law
The government has granted itself extraordinary powers to eliminate threats to its control amid deepening economic crisis
Ten days ahead of planned mass protests against public sector corruption in Zimbabwe, award-winning journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was abducted by members of the country’s security apparatus. Opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume was also arrested.
The news came as the country faces a deepening economic crisis and the majority of citizens try to deal with indefinite Covid-19 lockdown regulations that have devastated their means of making a livelihood in a largely informal economy. Far from isolated, the arrests of Chin’ono and Ngarivhume are part of a deliberate campaign by a rapacious political and military elite to target oppositional voices at all costs.
The Covid-19 pandemic called for all governments to enact regulations designed to curtail human mobility and interaction. However, in the case of Zimbabwe these were implemented through a variety of problematic legal instruments often validated retrospectively.
The pandemic and associated regulations have provided the government a smokescreen to continue a calculated and systematic effort to eliminate threats to their control by restricting citizens’ fundamental freedoms of movement and assembly, expediting constitutional amendments, constraining press freedom, and weakening the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Alliance (MDC).
Covid-19 has laid bare the false hope raised by the November 2017 coup that ousted long-standing leader Robert Mugabe, while extending a lifeline to Zanu (PF) under Emmerson Mnangagwa. In spite of Mnangagwa’s promising rhetoric on the commitment to set the nation on the path to reform and recovery, the way in which Covid-19 regulation has been formed and applied in Zimbabwe has exposed the country’s deep structural deficits in democratic practice.
Zimbabwe’s Covid-19 response is based in securitisation — used to great effect by authoritarian governments, such as China’s, to turn a health problem into a security issue. As described by scholars Dionysios Stivas and Nicholas Ross Smith, securitisation “typically involves informing and educating the public about the issue [crucial during a highly infectious disease outbreak] but also alarming them over the nature and seriousness of the threat. It can also legitimise a new form of politics that often involves the state taking on ‘temporary’ extraordinary powers.” These “temporary powers” can quickly become the new status quo, making it increasingly challenging for citizens to demand reform. In Zimbabwe, the government granted itself extraordinary powers, weaponised the law and entrusted its enforcement to the police and army, institutions that have long lacked adequate oversight.
The affect has been a surge in arbitrary arrests. More than 105,000 people have been arrested since March for “violations” of Covid-19 regulations. Multiple instances of gross human rights abuses by the police and military are being reported. A case in point was the verbal and physical abuse of Nokuthula and Ntombizodwa Mpofu, who were “handcuffed, assaulted, labelled prostitutes and tribally insulted” by six police officers in Bulawayo for allegedly “flouting lockdown measures” by going out to purchase food, a permitted essential service.
Increasingly, the government has brazenly sought to push through constitutional amendments during the Covid-19 crisis, knowing that public engagement on the bills can easily be limited by the enforcement of lockdown regulations. Some of these amendments further restrict media freedom, threaten judicial independence, curtail parliamentary oversight and vest yet more much power in the person of the president.
Efforts by the government to rule by law rather than upholding the rule of law is analysed in depth by Zimbabwean scholars Sharon Hofisi and Eldered Masunungure. They show that this has been a defining characteristic of Zimbabwe’s governance since the country’s independence, with the founding constitution being amended whenever it was deemed a hindrance to the maintenance and exercise of power.
In a context of narrowing political space and increasingly restricted media environment, activists and citizens have been able to subvert state restrictions through the innovative use of social media platforms. From a defiance of the president’s declaration of a national day of prayer, expositions of Covid-19 related corruption (Covidgate), mobilising for the July 31 march, and protesting the abduction of Chin’ono and the arrest of Ngarivhume, social media is perhaps the most potent tool against state repression in Zimbabwe today. It is one of the last remaining avenues for public dissent within the country.
Surveillance of citizens
However, the government is aware of this fact. In a desperate bid to control the digital space and increase its surveillance of citizens, it has been attempting to push through the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill during the Covid-19 lockdown with limited citizen input.
Freedom House makes an important observation of how “the leaders of today’s authoritarian systems devote full-time attention to the challenge of crippling the opposition without annihilating it, and flouting the rule of law while maintaining a plausible veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity”. While the Zimbabwean government is battling to maintain a “plausible veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity”, Covid-19 has no doubt provided an opportunity for Zanu (PF) leadership to further manipulate factional infighting between the opposition MDC formations to its benefit.
A well-calculated Supreme Court ruling, for instance, was designed to prop up the Thokozani Khuphe (MDC-T) led faction of the MDC while attempting to delegitimise the Nelson Chamisa led faction (MDC-A). The ruling coincided with the onset of the Covid-19 lockdowns. After a divide and rule strategy, Zanu (PF) has allowed the MDC-T to operate with impunity, flout Covid-19 restrictions and even provided the faction with state assistance in the take over of the party’s much disputed offices at Harvest House.
This selective application of the law has also been evident in the targeting of MDC-A members, such as the brutal arrest, then abduction and torture of MPs Joanna Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova.
It remains to be seen whether Zimbabwe’s deteriorating economic crisis amid a global health pandemic will be a catalyst for major structural reform.
The pandemic has created a securitisation dilemma in the country whereby government’s ostensible attempts to avert the pandemic have negatively affected human security, undermined the rule of law and deepened the state’s autocratic grip. Rolling back the additional damage done to constitutionality in Zimbabwe in the name of Covid-19 will be difficult.
As public anger and resentment builds amid the country’s bleak economic outlook, the government continues to tighten lockdown measures and stifle debate. It is therefore incumbent upon those who are in a position to support Zimbabwean citizens’ rights to protest, to do so. The government must be held accountable to its citizens, failing which continued repression and exploitation will only continue.
Buchanan-Clarke is head of the human security and climate change programme, and Mashingaidze senior researcher, at Good Governance Africa.
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