The abduction of Peter Magombeyi, 26, the leader of Zimbabwe’s doctors, who was masterminding a strike for better pay and improved working conditions, brought the country’s crumbling health sector to a standstill. He was only found five days later, dumped in the bush some 40 km northwest of the capital, Harare, bruised and disorientated from days of abuse.
Just before Magombeyi was abducted, he had literally been walking with his back firmly to the wall and sleeping with one eye wide open as he was receiving threatening messages from unknown people on his phone over the deadlock between the broke government and the underpaid doctors.
That he was found alive was a real miracle to many because in the past none of those that have gone missing for more than a day have been found alive, if found at all. Even most of his colleagues who took to the streets daily to protest against his abduction had started referring to him – in their songs and slogans – using terms reserved only for the dead.
Magombeyi is the latest of the more than 50 Zimbabwean opposition and human rights activists who, since the beginning of the year, have been kidnapped from their homes in the middle of the night by armed men and tortured. Not a single suspect has been apprehended by security agents in connection with these kidnappings. This has left Zimbabweans, who are bitterly divided along unforgiving political fault lines, to accuse and counter-accuse each other of being behind these crimes.
The opposition and the international community blame the government, while the ruling ZANU-PF party and government officials blame it on the opposition that they accuse of working with the United States and other Western powers to pursue a regime change agenda.
There is no love lost between President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government and the opposition and civil society organisations (CSOs). The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) rejected the outcome of the July 2018 elections and continues to challenge Mnangagwa’s legitimacy, while for his part Mnangagwa has threatened to go after those individuals and organisations that he accuses of trying to destabilise his government.
Since the spate of abductions started, Mnangagwa and his government and ruling party officials have taken turns to accuse the victims of faking the attacks.
“Government is disturbed by the growing trend of politically motivated false abductions in the country which are calculated to put government in negative light,” Mnangagwa said in a state address on September 20.
“Such political trickery, which in fact amounts to terrorism, will not take our country forward. New measures might have to be formulated to deal with this new threat and to severely punish those responsible for such subterfuges,” threatened Mnangagwa, who has a reputation for ruthlessness built over the more than four decades that he was Robert Mugabe’s enforcer.
Mnangagwa and his government are not just in denial, but they are also in denial about being in denial, as one moment they claim the abductions are staged, and the next they blame the same abductions they don’t acknowledge on the opposition or on a “third force” that they say is bent on tarnishing the government.
A state terror campaign?
Despite these strident denials victims have harrowing tales to share. Magombeyi, the latest victim, had to seek treatment in neighbouring South Africa for suspected liver poisoning and brain damage. Some, like Tatenda Mombeyarara, are now disabled, while others are suffering from the psychological effects of their traumatic experience.
This prompted Amnesty International to conclude that a atate-sanctioned crackdown against human rights defenders, activists, civil society leaders and members of the opposition, including abductions and torture, is underway in Zimbabwe.
“We are witnessing a violent crackdown on activists and civil society leaders, with authorities using some of the brutal tactics seen under the government of Robert Mugabe,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Southern Africa. “Instead of listening to protestors’ concerns about the economy, the authorities have used torture and abduction to crush dissent and instil fear.”
Dewa Mavhinga, Human Rights Watch Southern Africa Director, told TRT World in an interview that all indications are pointing to state actors being behind these violations.
“The matter of abductions is straightforward – the abductions are real, and from the look of things, elements within the state may be complicit in them because of three reasons," explained Mavhinga.
"One. Since the beginning of the year, all those abducted and tortured have been known government critics, activists, or trade union leaders challenging the government to offer better wages for teachers, ordinary workers, or doctors.
"Two. Those who have been abducting people are armed men, often with military-grade weapons like AK47 rifles, and speaking with government authority about dealing with elements threatening national security.
"And three, of all these abductions, despite clear evidence that could easily lead to arrests, like threats issued via registered mobile phone numbers, there has not been a single arrest - suggesting the police are deliberating inactive when it comes to investigating abductions and arresting those behind them."
Mavhinga added: “The motive of abductions is clearly to strike fear into the hearts of all government critics, and to prevent people from organising protests against the Mnangagwa government.”
Jestina Mukoko, a survivor of abduction and torture by state goons, concurred with Mavhinga that the crimes have all the hallmarks of state involvement.
“Abductions are not new to the system,” Mukoko told TRT World. “It is a tactic that has been used over the years, even in the government of former president Mugabe, the objective being to silence dissent and muzzle anything that goes against the system.”
Are the abductions staged?
However, others see the abductions as the work of the opposition that is determined to discredit the new leadership. They accuse the opposition and their cahoots in the CSOs of conniving to stage these abductions in the hope of gleaning international sympathy and, more importantly, the lifeblood financial support that usually accompanies that sympathy.
“The big question is, what does the current government gain by abducting the medical doctor [Magombeyi] at such a time when they are trying to clean up their own image?” asked opposition member Linda Masarira.
“Who stands to benefit from these so-called abductions? The MDC of course! If they abduct one of their own and put them in a safe house somewhere, they are going to get donor funds and buttress their narrative that there are gross human rights violations in Zimbabwe and then the US will probably apply more sanctions to Zimbabwe, and then they rejoice as they always do.
“The MDC should move away from politics of setting a bad narrative about our country and must start pushing for politics of issues. They want to grab power at all cost and are prepared to smear the country’s image just so that the current [government] finds it difficult to attract solidarity from other nations and investment from abroad. It is very bad and shameful,” Masarira added.
Accusations of this nature make victims of abductions like Mukoko, who was held incommunicado and tortured for a record 21 days, very sad.
“I don’t buy the issue of faking abductions… for what?” she asked when TRT World posed the question to her. “People continue to talk about money, but where is the money? In 2008 when I was abducted the manner in which the others were abducted was not identical to how I was abducted. I have not read a manual of abductions which might be reason for people to say because this did not happen therefore [it is] fake.”
Is a 'third force' responsible?
Yet others, including Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister, Sibusiso Moyo, blame the crimes on what they see as a 'third force'. A statement issued by his ministry said it was curious that most of these high-profile abduction cases only take place in the run-up to international events.
“It is still fresh in our minds that towards the SADC Summit in Tanzania last month [August], the country was gripped with numerous abductions of our citizens by people whose aim we can only believe was to tarnish the image of the country regionally, continentally and internationally,” Moyo said. “We have no doubt that the latest abduction of Dr Peter Magombeyi was meant to coincide with the visit to Zimbabwe by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association.”
The Special Rapporteur, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, was due in the country until September 27 on a fact-finding mission. The 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly was also about to start in New York.
Who could this 'third force' be? Could it be some unhappy members of the faction of the ruling ZANU-PF and its military sympathisers that were sidelined when Mnangagwa came to power after the November 2017 coup? In the run-up to last year’s elections, a bomb went off at Mnangagwa’s campaign rally in the country’s second largest city of Bulawayo, narrowly missing him, killing two of his bodyguards instead. He blamed it on enemies from within.
Local media reports suggest that there is a serious fall-out between Mnangagwa and his deputy, Constantino Chiwenga, the general that masterminded the military invention that brought the former to power, over sharing of the spoils of the coup. Chiwenga is currently hospitalised in China where he is reportedly fighting for his life following a suspected poisoning, reportedly by his colleagues. Moyo, the Foreign Affairs Minister – the army general that announced the coup – also narrowly survived another poisoning attempt last year. This infighting has raised serious questions about the enemies that Mnangagwa’s government is facing from within.
Mnangagwa and his predecessor Mugabe, who died in Singapore in early September, had become sworn enemies following a nasty fall-out over the succession issue that resulted in Mnangagwa being expelled from both the ruling party and the government. This prompted him to enlist the military to stage a spectacular comeback that saw the late former strongman being permanently consigned to the dustbin of history.
Since the coup that brought him to power, Mnangagwa has been alienated from many of his former colleagues, both within the ruling ZANU-PF party and the military. He has been hunting and haunting several former senior members of the ruling party that belonged to a faction that supported Mugabe’s wife, Grace, to take over from the aged former leader. Many of these former heavyweights that were fiercely loyal to Mugabe, fled into exile while those that have remained in the country are regularly arrested in what is widely seen as persecution by prosecution.
Abductions are not new in Zimbabwe. Some people like Eddison Sithole, who were abducted during the country’s 1970s decolonisation war that ended 40 years ago were never found. Activist Itai Dzamara was abducted from his home in 2015 and has not been seen since. In 2008, the remains of Tonderai Ndira’s remains were found in the bush several days after his abduction. Thousands of villagers who were abducted from their homes in during Gukurahundi genocide in the mid-1980s were never found.