Zimbabwean government extends crackdown to aid groups

  • Cyril Zenda
  • 23 Feb 2019

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has gone after lawyers and doctors, targeting them for providing medical and legal aid to those who suffered at the hands of the state following the January protests.

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa is accused of targeting lawyers and doctors and aid organisations for providing medical and legal aid to those who suffered during the December 2018 protests. ( Reuters )

“Blessed are they who will follow the path of the government laws, for their days on earth will be increased. But woe unto those who will choose the path of collaboration with dissidents for we will certainly shorten their stay on earth.” This was Emmerson Mnangagwa, on April 4, 1983 –then security minister – when he decided to use the biblical saying at the onset of the Gukurahundi genocide in which more than 20 000 people were killed in the southwestern parts of the country.

When, 36 years later, Mnangagwa – now Zimbabwe’s leader – told ruling party supporters that his government was hunting down lawyers and doctors that rendered humanitarian assistance to victims of a brutal state crackdown in the aftermath of the violent January fuel protests, it was perceived as a threat by regular Zimbabweans.

Many citizens think the man who succeeded Robert Mugabe is nicknamed “the Crocodile” because he is appropriately dangerous. And he doesn’t appear to be making any effort not to live to that expectation.

Mnangagwa’s decision to extend the crackdown to human rights lawyers and doctors could be informed by his own personal experience. The 76-year old leader ironically owes his life to human rights lawyers and doctors that fought tooth and nail to save him from the gallows after he, together with colleagues, were arrested for their involvement in terrorist acts of 1960s, the early days of Zimbabwe’s nationalist liberation struggle. Three of his colleagues were hanged in 1968, but Mnangagwa escaped the hangman’s noose by the skin of his teeth after lawyers and doctors connived to lie that he was younger than 21 years, the minimum age for execution. That personal experience should have taught him how dangerous these professionals can be to sitting governments.

Zimbabwean pastor and activist Evan Mawarire talks to the press soon after his release from Chikurubi prison on the outskirts of Harare on January 30. Mawarire who was charged with subversion has been released on bail after more than a week and says he needs a doctor and so do hundreds of people still in jail with wounds from beatings by security forces.(AP)

Mnangagwa took the opportunity presented by his “Thank You” rally held for his supporters last week to reveal how the security dragnet had been extended to include those who offered medical attention to injured protestors and provided legal assistance to the citizens who were arrested in the aftermath of the demonstrations.

Lawyers and doctors are only the latest targets to be included in Mnangagwa’s dragnet that already includes non-governmental organizations (NGOs), trade union leaders and opposition leaders and supporters.

At the beginning of the brutal crackdown in January, Mnangagwa’s spokesman, George Charamba, announced that it was only “a foretaste of things to come”.

“In places like Bulawayo, they (organisers) were moving around telling people to go and engage in violence,” Mnangagwa told supporters of his ruling ZANU-PF party at Rutenga, some 450 km south of the capital, Harare.

“They told them that if anyone gets arrested, they should go to a certain place, there are lawyers waiting to defend them. If anyone gets hurt, they should go to a certain place, there are doctors waiting to treat them. We are now going after those doctors who were involved in those activities. Those lawyers that were inciting violence, we are now going after them. So those who choose violence, we are prepared.”

Kennedy Masiye, the co-director of the Centre for Human Rights of Zimbabwe said the threat against lawyers and doctors was shocking.

“The world should be put on notice by such reckless and life threatening utterances that foretell the impending crackdown, which will further degenerate the rule of law in Zimbabwe,” Masiye told TRT World.

He said the threats by the President expose lawyers and doctors to violence by both state and non-state actors.

Shortly after Mnangagwa’s threats, a lawyer representing some of those arrested in the police and military operation that has netted more than 1100 people, was allegedly attacked right inside a court in the central town of Gweru.

“It is imperative to note that the lawyers and doctors in question are human rights defenders and according to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. They have the right to offer and provide professionally qualified legal assistance or other advice and assistance in defence of human rights,” Masiye added.

Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Southern Africa, Muleya Mwananyanda described Mnangagwa’s threats as “deeply troubling and unwarranted.” 

“Coming off the heels of Amnesty International’s expose of a systematic targeting of dissent during the national ‘stay-away’ period, they affirm that his government used security forces, including military personnel, to brutalize people who were protesting,” Mwananyanda said.

“This latest threat is a sinister hint that the situation could become even worse,” she added.

Crisis Group Southern Africa Project Director, Piers Pigou, said Mnangagwa was effectively criminalizing dissent in Zimbabwe. “ED (Mnangagwa) demonstrates inability to distinguish between legal and illegal protest. (It is) perhaps fitting in a country where the law is so elastic.”

A few days after Mnangagwa’s threats, the army announced that it was embarking on a door-to-door campaign in search of military and police uniforms that it says were stolen by some criminals who are now using them to commit crimes. This was seen as an excuse to raid homes and offices of those people that the security agents could be targeting.

Some of the people who have been arrested committing crimes clad in army uniforms have pointed to the ruling ZANU-PF party as the source of the camouflages.

Mnangagwa accuses some of the NGOs, which he alleges are working with some Western governments, of fabricating the allegations against security forces in an attempt to undermine his government.

In late January Social Welfare minister, Sekai Nzenza, told Parliament that her ministry was in the process of reviewing the Private Voluntary Organisations Act, the law governing NGOs and CSOs in Zimbabwe, with a view to tighten it.

There is no love lost between successive governments in Zimbabwe and civic society organisations and or the international community, as theirs has always been a cat and mouse relationship from as way back as the 1960s. The colonial government accused NGOs, CSOs together with foreign governments of supporting the nationalist movements led by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo.

After Independence in 1980, it was Mugabe’s turn to accuse the same groups and countries that had supported their cause, of dabbling in politics as well as interfering in the internal affairs of the southern African nation. It is this rhetoric that Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s enforcer for four decades, has continued to run with. This is despise his sweeping promises when he came into power in November 2017 to deliver a “new Zimbabwe”.

If anything, Mnangagwa has reached the point where distinguishing him from Mugabe is becoming impossible for many citizens.

Farai Maguwu, Director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, a civic organisation, said Mnangagwa is behaving the way he is because he is aware that the political situation in Zimbabwe is reaching boiling point.

“Government is increasingly feeling insecure and resorting to more lethal force as a deterrent for a mass uprising,” Maguwu told TRT World

“Those threats coming from the Commander in Chief of the Defence Forces and the announcement of military searches must be taken very seriously in light of the use of disproportionate force by the government since August 2018.”

“This is a serious indictment on the President and an insult to the anticipated national dialogue,” said Daniel Shumba, one of the presidential candidates in last year’s election. 

“You cannot allow a president to threaten a nation with brutality. Cry my beloved country.”