The claims by the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS) that the ill-fated attempted jailbreak at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison was engineered by unnamed political forces appear to be a clumsy effort at a serious cover-up.
Four prisoners died after prison guards fired at inmates who were allegedly trying to escape in the March incident that raised a lot of unanswered questions. ZPCS says only one prisoner died due to gunshot wounds and three others were killed in a stampede. Initial reports indicated that the riots were sparked by deteriorating conditions at the correctional facility. The prisoners had expressed unhappiness about the poor diet and these are issues that have been in the public domain for a very long time. Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa later told Parliament that jailed rapist pastor Robert Martin Gumbura and other 100 dangerous criminals were behind the bloody riots.
Mnangagwa never mentioned the political hand that the ZPCS now alleges engineered the disturbances. Gumbura and eight others are now being tried in the courts for their alleged roles in the riots. ZPCS deputy commissioner-general (audit and inspectorate) Agrey Machingauta on Monday told a parliamentary committee the riots were meant to embarrass President Robert Mugabe who was in Japan at the time. He said they had evidence that an unidentified woman was co-ordinating the attempted jailbreak for political reasons.
However, Machingauta’s failure to identify the alleged woman by name or the political organisations purportedly behind the disturbances discredits the whole narrative. The serious allegations that ZPCS is making against the faceless politicians have to be tested and this can only happen in a court of law.
The Chikurubi riots happened in March and if ZPCS had the intelligence that Machingauta claims was made available to the institution prior to the unrest, police should have made arrests by now. ZPCS cannot try to hide behind politics to avoid dealing with the real reasons behind the riots.
It is an open secret that Zimbabwe’s prisons have become inhabitable because of gross underfunding. At the height of the economic crisis in 2008, prisoners died in their numbers because of malnutrition and it took an investigation by the South African Broadcasting Corporation for the prison authorities to admit that the situation had reached a crisis point.
The government was forced to open its doors to donors who helped avert mass starvation. Prisoners were given clothes and food.
Lately there has been a flurry of stories of inmates complaining about lack of food and other essentials behind bars. Riots like the one that rocked Chikurubi were inevitable. There is no use for the government to try and hide the rot by blaming non-existent political actors for the disturbances. Machingauta’s theatrics before the parliamentary committee will not fool anyone, but invite more scrutiny on the ZPCS. The lame excuse also exposes how State institutions have become hostage to politics and would latch onto any conspiracy theory to hide their inefficiencies.
MPs should not have allowed Machingauta to literally get away with murder for his laughable explanation for the otherwise serious incident that also put to question the security at the country’s correctional facilities. The legislators must have insisted on evidence to back these outlandish claims.
ZPCS clearly took a leaf from the Zanu PF government, which is fond of explaining away its evident shortcomings by blaming sanctions and so-called regime change agents. For once, the prison authorities should take responsibility and address the problems that led to the protests. Thorough investigations need to be carried out to expose and punish those behind the violent incident. There are grounds to suspect dereliction of duty on the part of the ZPCS and a professional inquiry will expose those that slept on the job. Blaming politics will be the easiest way out but will not solve any problem.