New perspectives: Civil liberties under threat as Mnangagwa shuts down dissenting voices

If co-option fails, Mnangagwa has shown a steely determination to resort to coercion and literally destroy anyone who stands in his way.

By Blessing Goronga

President Emmerson Mnangagwa once famously declared that he is soft as wool, but beneath that woolie facade lies a ruthless determination to either co-opt or coerce those he believes are a threat to his rule.

The first part — co-option — is easy; a potential threat is identified and offered a carrot in the hope that this overture will not be resisted.

The Political Actors Dialogue or  Polad  is one such example where Mnangagwa offered the political opposition a carrot and most of them could not resist taking a bite.

There are many other examples, where former fierce politicians find themselves being appointed as ambassadors and some with cushy government jobs.

If co-option fails, Mnangagwa has shown a steely determination to resort to coercion and literally destroy anyone who stands in his way.

The gazetting of the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, which heralds the shrinking of civil space in Zimbabwe, is an example of Mnangagwa’s ruthless determination to shut down what he deems as the last frontier holding him and his government to account.

With MDC Alliance still reeling from the takeover of its building and the loss of its legislators thanks to a 2020 Supreme Court ruling, civil society, which works under serious strain, has held fort and demanded accountability from the government.

Instead of appreciating the value that civil society brings to democracy and the importance of accountability, Mnangagwa and his government have pulled all the stops to ensure that they cripple, if not destroy civil society for good.

In the background it seems the government is ploughing ahead with the Patriot Bill, another draconian piece of legislation that is meant to ensure that, once again, the government is not held to account for its excesses.

When pressed about this proposed law, the government says it will not gazette a bill, but will instead amend the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.

Cold comfort. The import is the same, however they do it, the purpose is to limit citizens’ rights such as freedom of association and expression.

To cap it all up, Mnangagwa recently signed into law the Data Protection Act in spite of protests from nearly every corner, as it is patently clear that the bill infringes on citizens’ rights.

On the surface, one can argue that the country needs a data protection law, but the way this one is couched spells doom for freedom of expression and the right to privacy.

For example, the law criminalises the publication of falsehoods online, an archaic provision that has no place in our statutes.

The constitutional court decriminalised the publication of falsehoods almost a decade ago and why this government seems hellbent on keeping this provision beggars belief.

One way that this provision can be used is that when a journalist writes an investigative story, they could be accused of publishing falsehoods and with that they face jail time.

This inculcates a culture of self-censorship and ensures that the government is forever shielded from scrutiny.

What we are witnessing at the moment in Zimbabwe is the consolidation of state power and the beginning of a legislated one party state, where the president and his government have the comfort to cherry pick and decide what kind of opposition they want.

The president and his party are laying the foundation for the destruction of civil society because this will open the way for them to govern with impunity and without any scrutiny and accountability.

Social media and the internet have been a pesky inconvenience and with the Data Protection Act now law, the government is confident that they can deal with their enemies.

Finally, when — not if it comes —the Patriot Act will mean citizens cannot engage diplomats posted to Zimbabwe without government approval and one of the bastions of accountability will have been eradicated just like that.

While he has managed to co-opt some voices against his rule, Mnangagwa now wants to coerce and destroy the voices that have stood up to him.

While Mnangagwa has been loudly shouting that Zimbabwe is “open for business” his conduct shows that the country remains closed for human rights, the rule of law and other basic rights.

It is every Zimbabwean’s duty to speak out against this brazen shutting down of civil and political space.

If Zimbabweans remain apathetic to such an assault on basic rights we will soon be like China or Rwanda, where there is barely any opposition, or like Myanmar, where the military junta does as it pleases.

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