While You Weren't Looking
Zimbabwe Cracks Down on Protests as Economy Crumbles
With inflation running at 700 percent, the pandemic has left an already weak state on the brink.
Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.
Here’s what we’re watching this week: tensions rise in Zimbabwe amid rampant inflation and a widening crackdown on dissent, QAnon conspiracy theories are taking root in Europe, and Ecuador has put the Galapagos Islands on alert after hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels were spotted off its shores.
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Zimbabwe on the Brink
The streets of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, were empty on Friday save for hundreds of soldiers and police dispatched to squash planned anti-government protests amid rising public anger over corruption, food shortages, and rampant inflation. Security forces cracked down on public spaces across the country earlier this week, while in Harare, checkpoints originally erected during the COVID-19 lockdown were used to control movement into the city center. Dozens of people were arrested on Friday for participating in small protests including the prominent author Tsitsi Dangarembga and Fadzayi Mahere, the spokeswoman of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance bloc.
The government has cautioned that protests will be regarded as an insurrection and that anyone who attends them will “only have themselves to blame.” Security forces were implicated in the deaths of six protestors in post-election violence in the country in 2018. On Wednesday, President Emmerson Mnangagwa sought to blame foreign interference for fueling the protests, while a spokesman for the ruling party described U.S. Ambassador Brian A. Nichols as a “thug” and threatened him with expulsion. Similar accusations were levied by Mnangagwa’s predecessor Robert Mugabe, who was ousted in 2017. Mahere, the opposition spokeswoman, told the Guardian that the “state is at war with its citizens.”
Brewing humanitarian catastrophe. Tensions have risen dramatically in recent months as the pandemic has tipped the country’s fragile economy into crisis. The local currency, which was reintroduced last year after being shelved for a decade due to a hyperinflation crisis in the late 2000s, has imploded with inflation over 700 percent, obliterating people’s savings and salaries. The World Food Program warned this week that by the end of the year 60 percent of the country’s population would lack food security, and it appealed to the international community to step up to prevent “a potential humanitarian catastrophe.”
The pandemic has also underscored the devastating impact of corruption, which Transparency International Zimbabwe estimates costs the country almost $2 billion each year. Earlier this month Health Minister Obadiah Moyo was fired after being charged with criminal abuse of office for awarding a $60 million contract to a company blamed for inflating the cost of COVID-19 medical supplies sold to the government. In April, doctors in Zimbabwe took the country to court and nurses went on a nationwide strike over the lack of personal protective equipment. On Monday, seven babies were stillborn at Harare Central Hospital as staff shortages lead critical treatment to be delayed. “We have been robbed of our future, including our unborn babies. Please Stop the LOOTING,” tweeted Peter Magombeyi, a doctor who first reported the deaths.
Widening crackdown. Last week the investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, who exposed the allegations of corruption in the government procurement of coronavirus supplies, was arrested and charged with “incitement to participate in public violence.” The opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume was also arrested on the same charges; if convicted they could face up to 10 years in prison. On Monday evening, police in Zimbabwe published a wanted list of 14 political activists, without giving any details of alleged crimes. On Thursday, unidentified armed men believed to be from the police raided the home of ZimLive editor Mduduzi Mathuthu. Mathuthu, who was not home during the raid, said that his sister had been detained in a bid to force him to turn himself in.
Since Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980, the country has never seen a popular uprising. “They know they will be killed, people will disappear,” said Harry K. Thomas Jr, a former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe. “In Africa, you go out the way you came in,” he said in reference to President Mnangagwa, who was swept to power following a military coup in 2017.
What We’re Following
Alarm in the Galapagos. The Ecuadorian Navy has been placed on alert after a fleet of some 260 mostly Chinese flagged fishing vessels was spotted 200 miles off the coast of the Galapagos Islands. “We are on alert, [conducting] surveillance, patrolling to avoid an incident such as what happened in 2017,” Ecuadorian Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrín told reporters, referring to an incident three years ago in which a Chinese vessel was found to be carrying 300 tons of marine wildlife, mostly sharks. On Saturday, Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno tweeted that the Galapagos Marine Reserve was one of the “richest fishing areas and a hotbed of life for the entire planet.” Chinese fishing vessels head to the region every year, as fishing stocks nearer their home ports are increasingly exhausted, but this is the largest fleet seen in recent years, according to the Guardian.
Salvini stripped of immunity. On Thursday, the Italian Senate voted to strip the country’s former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of his immunity from prosecution, paving the way for him to be prosecuted for illegal detention, after he refused docking rights to a ship carrying refugees and migrants last August. Over 150 people were trapped on the ship off the Italian coast for 19 days. The far-right politician, known for his vehement opposition to immigration, could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty. He faces two other cases on similar charges.
Contagious conspiracy theories. Baseless QAnon conspiracy theories that allege there is a “deep state” conspiracy to overthrow U.S. President Donald Trump have gained traction in Europe, according to a report published this week by NewsGuard, an organization that rates the reliability of news sites. Over the past year, QAnon sites amassed a large number of followers, adapting the U.S conspiracy theory to local and regional contexts in France, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom, according to the group. Similar movements have taken root in Canada and Iran, as Justin Ling and Ariane Tabatabai explain in Foreign Policy.
In an interview last month, the British singer Robbie Williams said that “the right questions haven’t been asked,” about the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claims—without evidence—that leading members of the Democratic Party were running a human trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. As people have been confined to their homes, the coronavirus has fueled conspiracy theories that 5G cell networks have been used to spread the virus and that global elites orchestrated the pandemic in a bid to vaccinate much of the world’s population.
Keep an Eye On
Environmental defenders. Last year was the deadliest on record for activists seeking to protect the environment from damaging or illegal exploitation of natural resources through activities such as logging, mining, and large-scale agriculture, according to a report released this week by the watchdog group Global Witness. Two hundred and twelve activists were killed worldwide last year, with the Philippines and Colombia accounting for half of the deaths. Indigenous communities are most at risk, accounting for 40 percent of those killed last year. “These are the people on the frontline of the climate crisis, trying to protect climate-critical areas and reverse these devastating practices,” said the report.
India’s education reform. On Wednesday, India’s Union Cabinet, the supreme decision-making body, approved a package of reforms to the education system, the most significant overhaul in decades. The New Education Policy includes an increase in education spending to 6 percent of the country’s GDP and measures to reduce pressure on students ahead of board exams taken at age 16 and 18. It would also allow the world’s leading universities to open campuses in India. Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu described the policy as “truly global and essentially Indian.” The opposition Indian National Congress party voiced concerns about new advice for schools to make vernacular or regional languages the language of instruction until the fifth class over concerns that it could undermine the teaching of English, one of the country’s official languages, which has given India a significant head start in the global economy.
Odds and Ends
The Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova turned down a $250,000 prize from a Qatari anti-corruption center because of the fund’s relationship to the emir of Qatar, who closed down the center for investigative journalism in his own country. “I answered them. I said, thank you, I investigated the issue and do not believe in your sincerity, and I do not sell my reputation for money,” Ismayilova told the news site Jam News. Ismayilova was recognized as an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience after being arrested in 2014 on charges widely believed to have been an attempt to silence her investigative reporting. She was released in 2016 after spending almost 18 months behind bars.
Foreign Policy Recommends
Disinformation and science denialism may have been fueled by the internet, but they certainly didn’t start there. In a new BBC Radio Four podcast series, the journalist Peter Pomerantsev looks at how major international corporations in the tobacco and oil industries marshaled their resources to manufacture fear, uncertainty, and doubt on climate change and the link between smoking and cancer. The full series of “How They Made Us Doubt Everything,” is available online and on major podcast platforms.
That’s it for this week.