Zimbabwe Crackdown Saps Hopes of Reform
The violence is a blow to Zimbabweans who hoped for greater freedom of expression in the post-Mugabe era.
Authorities in Zimbabwe have killed at least eight people and shut down the internet following protests on fuel price hikes in the past week around the country, in the most severe bout of state-mediated violence since President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power in 2017.
Security forces have detained hundreds of activists, including Evan Mawarire, a high-profile pastor who led a national protest movement in 2016 dubbed #ThisFlag. Many are facing charges of inciting public violence. An association of Zimbabwean doctors said they have treated nearly 70 people for gunshot wounds.
The crisis is the latest indication that Mnangagwa is not the democratic reformer many in Zimbabwe had yearned for when Robert Mugabe was ousted in 2017 after his 37 years in power. Mnangagwa was on a trip to Eurasia when the protests started and remains outside the country.
Chipo Dendere, a professor of political science at Amherst College who is from Zimbabwe, said what is different this time is “the open militarization of the state.”
“People wanted to see Mugabe go, but they didn’t realize that they were actually creating a bigger monster,” said Alex Magaisa, a Zimbabwean lawyer and professor at the University of Kent. “The military is now very much in control—and very powerful.”
It’s too early to assess the scale and severity of the crisis or whether it portends big shifts in Zimbabwe’s fragile political environment. But several Zimbabwean activists, health workers, and civil society organizers who witnessed the violence said the crackdown appears more widespread and severe than those in the past decade. They described widespread beatings by security forces, a police raid on a hospital where those assaulted were receiving treatment, and the military taking over a police station where protesters were detained. All spoke on condition of anonymity, citing concerns for their safety.
“The crackdown is profound … and brutal, and we cannot work out what the endgame is,” said a Zimbabwean health worker.
Mnangagwa announced massive price increases for both petrol and diesel on Jan. 12 to generate revenue for the state, which is grappling with sharp budget shortages, uncertainty around the potential return to a national currency, and an economy in tatters.
“Increasing the price of fuel means that the cost of food goes up, it means that the cost of public transportation goes up, it means that retailers have to increase costs,” said Siphosami Malunga, a Zimbabwean based in Johannesburg who serves as the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.
As a result, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions called for a three day “stay away” that closed schools, government offices, and shops and emptied main streets. The tactic was designed to limit demonstrators’ contact with Zimbabwean police and military.
But when protesters barricaded main roads to support the shutdown, security forces responded with door-to-door raids. “Uniformed members of the police and army forced entry into homes by breaking doors and windows” in Harare, according to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. As of Thursday, Peter Mutasa, the president of the rights group, was missing.
The crisis marks the country’s second violent crackdown on protesters in six months. In August 2018, security forces opened fire on supporters of Zimbabwe’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who disputed the results of the election that cemented Mnangagwa’s rule. Six people were killed in the violence. International election watchdogs criticized the vote for irregularities.
John Tomaszewski, the Africa regional director for the Washington-based International Republican Institute, said Zimbabweans experienced a wave of “euphoria” after Mugabe’s ouster in 2017 and before Mnangagwa assumed the presidency.
“People could say and do things they couldn’t before,” he added. “And you can’t put that back in a box.”
Zimbabwe’s security minister, Owen Ncube, blamed the opposition party and nongovernmental organizations for inciting the latest uptick in violence. “The prevailing security situation in the country is a culmination of a well- orchestrated series of events by the MDC Alliance, working in cahoots with NGOs, civic society, youth organizations, pressure groups, and individuals,” he said in a statement to the state-controlled newspaper, the Herald.
Other experts say the protests aren’t about political opposition but the country’s dire economic situation.“ZANU-PF [Zimbabwe’s ruling party] would like to blame the opposition, but the reality is that these protests are not being led by the opposition but by citizens that are fed up and frustrated that the government has failed them,” Magaisa said.
Mooya Nyaundi, a Zimbabwean lawyer and human rights activist based in Washington, D.C., said anger over the fuel price hikes spans the political spectrum as hopes dry up for meaningful economic reform in the post-Mugabe era. “The economy, whether you are ZANU-PF or MDC—it affects everybody,” she said. “I think that’s where a lot of the anger is stemming from—that false hope.”
Inflation in the Zimbabwean economy rose to over 42 percent last month, a high point for the country since record-shattering inflation rates hit Zimbabwe during its 2008 economic crisis. (The International Monetary Fund estimated inflation during that crisis hit 500 billion percent.)
With Mnangagwa traveling abroad, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga is running the country. Chiwenga is one of the ruling party’s most feared leaders, having led a deadly campaign to sideline the political opposition in 2008 and help Mugabe retain power.
Years later, in 2017, when rumors began to circulate that Mugabe was preparing a path to leadership for his wife, Grace, it was Chiwenga, then the head of Zimbabwe’s Defense Forces, who intervened to install Mnangagwa.
“He’s the enforcer,” said Todd Moss, an expert on the region and former State Department official now at the Center for Global Development.
“Under the Mugabe dictatorship, the police were always at the forefront, and the use of the military was there, but behind closed doors,” Dendere added.
To make it hard for organizers to coordinate the protests and to prevent images and video of the crackdown from seeping out and prompting international criticism, the Zimbabwean government moved to shut down internet access on Jan. 14.
Social media apps, including WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter, were all blocked until Wednesday afternoon. The #KeepItOn Coalition, a group of civil society organizations urging the Zimbabwean government to lift the internet outage, said Zimbabwe’s internet blackout cost the cash-strapped country over $5 million per day in direct economic costs, based on estimates from internet freedom advocacy organizations.
“The internet shutdown is not just a violation of freedom of expression—the government are also shooting themselves in the foot,” Nyaundi said.
Mnangagwa flew to Russia on Monday to seek loans for his country and is traveling the rest of the week to Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Azerbaijan. He then heads to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum. In Russia, Mnangagwa pushed for Russian investment in oil, gas, and diamond projects in Zimbabwe.
But any deals he strikes will be overshadowed by the violence, experts say.
“Their mantra has been that Zimbabwe is open for business,” Nyaundi said. “No investor is going to want to go into Zimbabwe when there is no reliable internet. It’s an unstable environment.”
Jefcoate O'Donnell is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. @brjodonnell