BY FARAI MATIASHE/NIZBERT MOYO
ZIMBABWE’s public health delivery system ground to a halt yesterday as doctors countrywide downed tools, with the Harare-based medical professionals marching to President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Munhumutapa Offices, demanding the safe return of their leader, Peter Magombeyi, who was allegedly abducted by suspected State security agents on Saturday night.
Hundreds of doctors and radiographers, holding placards, marched through central Harare before riot police allowed a handful of the protesters to present a petition at Mnangagwa’s office, vowing to continue with the industrial action until Magombeyi has been accounted for.
Magombeyi, the acting president of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors’ Association (ZHDA), was one of the organisers of an ongoing strike pushing for higher wages for State doctors in the wake of soaring costs of living.
He was abducted at the weekend by three masked men believed to be State security agents.
Although ZHDA represents mainly junior doctors at public hospitals, some senior doctors and consultants joined the march in solidarity.
His colleagues and rights groups claimed that Magombeyi was abducted by State security agents in an attempt to break the strike, which has disrupted healthcare services in hospitals, but government has denied responsibility, saying he could have been abducted by a third force to discredit Mnangagwa’s administration ahead of UN General Assembly in New York later this week.
Several civil society and opposition activists have also been allegedly abducted and tortured by suspected security agents, but government has also denied responsibility.
Doctors chanted “No Peter, No Work” and held placards reading “Bring Peter Back” as riot police stopped them from marching beyond the High Court building — a block away from Mnangagwa’s Munhumutapa Offices.
The doctors dispersed after police allowed half a dozen of them to deliver a petition to Mnangagwa’s office demanding action over Magombeyi’s disappearance, but they said their strike would continue.
“Dr Peter Magombeyi’s whereabouts remain unknown, and we are seriously concerned about this. We, therefore, demand his unconditional return to his family,” the petition read.
Similar protests were held at the United Bulawayo and Mpilo Central hospitals, where the doctors were addressed by ZHDA secretary-general Mthabisi Bhebhe.
But Mpilo clinical director Solwayo Ngwenya said only 80 of the over 200 doctors at the institution were on strike.
Senior doctors also wrote to Mnangagwa, saying they had withdrawn their services with effect from yesterday.
“We the senior doctors (specialists) working in the government health institutions met today September 16, 2019 at Parirenyatwa Hospital. We deliberated on the disappearance of our colleague, Dr Peter Magombeyi, which was reported to Budiriro Police Station (under) RRB number 4085997. Dr Magombeyi’s whereabouts remain unknown and we are seriously concerned about his welfare,” the petition handed over to Mnangagwa by the doctors also read.
Doctors, just like all citizens, have borne the brunt of a faltering economy characterised by triple-digit price rises and shortages of basic goods like fuel since Mnangagwa came into power nearly two years ago.
Mnangagwa’s government has promised salary increases to public sector workers, but many say those rises are insufficient.
Doctors received an increment of $360, which they have rejected as too little.
Diplomats said they would continue piling pressure on government to stop the abductions.
“Since January, more than 50 civil society, labour and opposition leaders have been abducted in Zimbabwe. No arrests have been made. We urge the government to take action and hold perpetrators of these human rights violations accountable. #FindDrPeterMagombeyi,” the US embassy in Harare tweeted yesterday.
ZHDA acting treasurer-general Tapiwa Mungofa vowed to continue with the protests until Magombeyi was unconditionally brought back.
“We are not going to work as we no longer feel comfortable. When our president has been released, we will continue demanding for a better salary. We are incapacitated. We remain incapacitated and we are still incapacitated,” he said.
Community Working Group on Health said the abduction was shameful and barbaric.
“The kidnapping of Dr Magombeyi, a well-known advocate for health workers, is not only shameful and barbaric, but an affront to personal liberty, freedoms of speech and association as enshrined in the country’s Constitution. CWGH, therefore, calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Dr Magombeyi,” CWGH said in a statement.
The Local Solutions Council (LSC) urged government to safeguard the rights of all Zimbabweans, ensure Magombeyi is immediately released, and his abductors face due process in a court of law.
“Moreover, these abductions are contrary to democracy, the rule of law and respect of citizens’ rights as enshrined in Zimbabwe’s Constitution, various regional and international statutes,” LSC said in a statement
“We would also like to remind the Zimbabwe government that democracy can only function if participation and trust between democratic State institutions, government and citizens are guaranteed. Above all, abductions undermine President Mnangagwa’s re-engagement agenda and claims of reform.”
On Sunday, police and Health minister Obadiah Moyo said they were seized with the matter, although there was no breakthrough at the time of going to print last night.