Two years after the coup

guest column:Alex T Magaisa

This month, the month of November, marks two years since Zimbabwe’s former leader, the late Robert Mugabe lost power to his long-time ally and lieutenant Emmerson Mnangagwa in a coup which was orchestrated by military commanders. We shall be doing a series of papers based on thematic areas to assess the performance of the Mnangagwa regime for the past two years.

The first area of assessment is the protection of human rights. The analysis proceeds on the view that by most credible accounts, human rights were seriously imperiled under the Mugabe regime and it is a good point to assess whether there has been any improvement.

The Mnangagwa regime started with bright promises of a new era. It touted itself as a “new dispensation”, attempting to contrast and disentangle itself from the Mugabe regime. It also described itself rather ambitiously as “the Second Republic” as if to summon good omens from the propitious gods of politics.

However, there is nothing on a balance of probabilities to support the grand claims of novelty and difference from the Mugabe regime. Instead, there have been a series of continuities from the old regime over the course of the two years. The promise of a new dispensation has been nothing more than a mirage.

Failure to reform

The Mnangagwa regime had a great opportunity to demonstrate its willingness and commitment to uphold and respect human rights by swiftly repealing draconian legislation. The symbols of such repressive laws were the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), both products of the Mugabe regime with Posa having longer roots in colonial legislation. It replaced the Law and Order Maintenance Act (Loma) which ironically had been inherited at independence and used by people who had been its victims during the colonial era.

However, two years after the coup, both laws are still on the statute books. The regime’s recent claims to the world that they have been repealed are patently false. As a matter of fact, Posa has been repeatedly used by the regime to ban demonstrations by members of the opposition and trade unions.

The pace of legal reforms in these areas have been slow. Furthermore, the so-called amendments are no more than a fraud. For example, in place of Posa, the regime is proposing a new law called Maintenance of Order and Peace Act, which in substance is no different. It is just like in 2002 when the Mugabe regime repealed the 1960s repressive Loma and replaced it with Posa. The net effect is that colonial-style legislation continues decades after independence.

Political rights

The continuation of repression is also evident in the area of political rights. These include the rights to demonstrate and petition, free speech and the freedom of assembly. These specific rights enable people to participate freely in a democratic society and to hold their leaders to account. However, as already pointed out, Posa and Aippa still stand in the way of the enjoyment of these rights.

Indeed, when the government invited the United Nations to assess Zimbabwe’s human rights situation, the world body sent a special rapporteur, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule. His report was damning. It demonstrated that the rights to assembly, demonstrate and free speech were heavily restricted.

More ominously the repressive use of these laws has been supported by the judiciary. When the official opposition party tried to hold demonstrations in August, the police banned them at the eleventh hour.

When the opposition party challenged the bans, the courts threw out the legal challenges effectively supporting the government ban.

When a junior doctors’ union leader, Peter Magombeyi, led his members demanding better working conditions, he was abducted and held incommunicado for nearly a week. The young doctor was only released after relentless pressure from fellow doctors, including senior consultants who joined the protests.

Leaders of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe have been arrested on spurious charges for daring to stand up for their members’ rights. Even their lawyer, Douglas Coltart has also been abused and arrested in the course of representing his clients.

More recently, the courts have also backed government bans on attempts by civil servants’ unions to demonstrate for decent wages. With government being the political referee on the rights issue, dissenting voices have very limited scope and space.

Deployment of the military

Two events illustrate the perilous nature of human rights in Zimbabwe. The first was the killing of civilians by members of the military and police on August 1, 2018 during election-related protests. The second episode was the protests in mid-January 2019 when soldiers were also deployed on the streets of Harare. Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch reported that 17 people were killed after security forces used live ammunition against protesters. In both cases, the government took the drastic step of deploying soldiers ostensibly to assist the police to quell demonstrations..

A commission of inquiry established by Mnangagwa to investigate the events of August 1, 2019 found that the military and police were responsible for the killing of civilians.

However, no action has been taken to hold the perpetrators to account. When the State does not prosecute or punish offenders, it encourages them to do the same in future. It promotes impunity. Given the length of time that has passed since the Kgalema Motlanthe Commission presented its report (December 2018), there is no appetite to implement its recommendations, notwithstanding the regime’s claims to the contrary.

After the expensive show of the Motlanthe Commission, which was established to pull wool over the eyes of a shocked international community, the regime did not even bother to investigate the killing of civilians during the January protests. These two episodes demonstrated the worst excesses of State power and the fact that the regime which had promised much was in reality unreformed and unrepentant.

De facto amnesty

Under the Mugabe regime offenders got protection from prosecution through general amnesties and presidential pardons. More often than not, the protection was through the Attorney-General’s deliberate failure to prosecute offenders. In this regard, very little has changed. Failure to prosecute offenders is tantamount to giving a general amnesty without declaring one.

It’s a de facto amnesty extended to offenders. It makes them beholden to the regime, while also giving them an incentive to re-offend knowing very well that they will not be held accountable for their misdeeds. It’s not surprising that after the killing of civilians in August 2018, they did not hesitate to kill again in January 2019.

It has to be said that the regularity with which soldiers have been deployed by the regime is another signal of its inclination towards repressive instruments. Authoritarian regimes tend to resort to coercion when they are unable to have their will through consent. The frequent resort to the military is consistent with repressive regime’s proclivity towards coercion as an instrument of control.

Property rights

When the regime started, Mnangagwa pledged a new era in which property rights would be protected. He was keen to distinguish himself from his predecessor who had earned a reputation for disregarding property rights through the controversial fast-track land reform programme that he led from 2000. While making it clear that he would not reverse the land reform, he pleaded to compensate the dispossessed white farmers and carry out a land audit to ensure fairness and effective use of land.

However, two years down the line the land audit remains a pipe dream. Vast tracts of land remain unused or under-utilised in the hands of absentee landlords who hold multiple farms individually or though family members and associates. Underutilising land has added to the woes caused by drought resulting in poor levels of production. A country that used to feed itself and others is still begging for food.

Neighbours who have also experienced droughts including Zambia and South Africa are selling food to Zimbabwe, a sign that some of the food shortages are man-made.

There has been some effort at setting aside money to compensate the white farmers, but it is only a modest sum; more an act of symbolism than substantive compensation. The regime may have hoped that this symbolism would find recognition among the Western Powers and buy it some favours in the re-engagement drive. It was not a bad idea but it got drowned in the maelstrom of the killings of civilians and clampdown in political rights.

The ghost of farm invasions

More recently however there have been cases of further dispossession of land. Earlier when a coffee farmer in Manicaland was affected by an invasion the government intervened following an outcry over the invasion. The intervention came in favour of the white farmer. This week, another white farmer was evicted from his farm in Chinhoyi. In this case, the government has not intervened. What has changed?

Perhaps the government was desperate for inclusion and re-engagement when it intervened in the coffee farmer’s case. Prospects of successful re-engagement existed. It’s failure to intervene over the Chinhoyi farmer comes in the wake of increasingly frosty relations with the West exacerbated by the clash over sanctions and a diplomatic row with the US. It’s possible that the government does not care anymore the same way it did at the time of the coffee farmer’s situation.

But the images don’t help the regime’s cause. To be seen condoning dispossession in this day and age, something that should have been part of the past is self-defeating. There is so much unused land in Zimbabwe that it makes no sense whatsoever to take over a productive farm.

It’s a gross failure of leadership that a country which is importing food at high cost is busy dispossessing productive farmers when there is an abundance of under-utilised land across the country. This is why it is true that while drought is a natural phenomenon, famine is a man-made calamity.

Spurious charges and detentions

The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act became the favoured piece of legislation to persecute political rivals during the Mugabe regime. One of the more notorious offences was insulting the president. Many were detained under the presidential insults provisions. Two years after Mugabe fell, the law is still in use, reminding people to tread with caution.

Another common charge is attempting to subvert a constitutionally elected government, a statutory relation to treason. Prominent politicians and political activists were detained for allegedly breaching these provisions under the Mugabe regime.

In the two years that Mnangagwa has been in power, there has been a flurry of arrests and detentions for breaching these provisions. The prosecutions invariably collapse and sink into the quick-sands of the justice system, but not before political opponents and activists have been immobilized and sufficiently harassed.

A more insidious phenomenon is the spate of abductions and torture of political activists. The regime has blamed a “Third Force” for these abductions, which ironically exposes it as weak and lacking control of the country’s security situation.

This year alone, a number of political activists and civil society campaigners have been abducted and tortured. No one has been held accountable. This has extended to comedians and musicians who are regarded as promoting an anti-government narrative. This spreads fear among the citizens, causing them to recoil and avoid challenging or criticising the government.

Real threat or paranoia?

The state of insecurity among citizens is reflected by Mnangagwa’s own fears for his own safety. His security arrangements have become visibly enhanced ever since he took power.

Indeed, it seems he has a bigger human fortress than his predecessor ever had. Perhaps it is a circumstance of the manner in which he ascended to the presidency which created many enemies and unhappy people.

Oddly enough, while there was an alleged assassination attempt at a political rally in Bulawayo last year, there has not been a single arrest or public prosecution of offenders. This leaves a yawning gap as to what is going on within the upper echelons of power. It seems more likely that there is mistrust among members of the establishment.

Conclusion

For years, Zimbabwe’s reputation regarding human rights has been abysmal. The fall of Mugabe was seen by some as a landmark moment which would represent a break with the past. These were misplaced hopes. It should have been clear that a coup would not represent serious change.

The authors of the coup were motivated by a desire to wrest power from a rival faction and to protect their interests. It was not intended for major transformation.

The coup would also strengthen the militarisation of the State ,which was already in motion long before Mugabe was forced out. A militarised State relies upon coercion and it is not amenable to the protection of human rights.

When Zimbabweans marched freely before Mugabe’s removal, one question that a few of us asked was how long the honeymoon between the military and the citizens would last. As it turned out, it was very brief. It has been a terribly unhappy marriage; a fallacious union built on the blessings of men in fatigues; an unholy union which has left citizens utterly flummoxed and traumatized.

In the next piece we will look at the regime’s performance in respect of the economy.

WaMagaisa
wamagaisa@me.com

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