Zimbabwe’s Long Quest for Democracy Trudges On

Five years since the coup that toppled the authoritarian Robert Mugabe, Zimbabweans say free elections remain the only hope for change

Zimbabwe’s Long Quest for Democracy Trudges On
Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa (C) inspects the guard of honor from a car during the Defense Forces Day celebrations in Harare on Aug. 14, 2018. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP via Getty Images)

In July 2018, Zimbabwe’s newly elected President Emmerson Mnangagwa triumphantly lifted his Bible to take the oath of office to tumultuous applause from supporters of his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). After savoring the moment, he lowered the book slowly for effect and, with a brief stroke of his pen, assumed control of the most powerful position in the land.

The slight smile that accompanied the green, red, black and gold presidential sash and gold chain of office revealed a man proud of his recent ascent to power. This process included the ousting in November 2017 of his aging predecessor, the long-serving Robert Mugabe. It had needed all of Mnangagwa’s guile to achieve, including a dramatic drive to the border and a long walk through the bush to escape an increasingly desperate Mugabe.

The man nicknamed “the crocodile” — “Garwe” in his Shona dialect — for his shrewd and cunning ways had taken over the reins in a manner worthy of a spy thriller.

Under the Mugabe presidency, Mnangagwa, a veteran of Zimbabwe’s independence struggle, held the position of minister and had been in charge of numerous portfolios, from State Security to Justice, Rural Housing and Defense. He was also vice president, before he was abruptly fired in a move that positioned the first lady, Grace Mugabe, to succeed her husband as president. Grace led a faction known as Generation 40 (G40), as its leaders were in their 40s. Meanwhile, Mnangagwa enjoyed strong support from the army in his bid to succeed the ailing Mugabe. Mnangagwa’s faction was known as Lacoste, in reference to his nickname.

A week after Mnangagwa’s dismissal, in the early hours of Nov. 15, 2017, the military announced it had taken Mugabe into custody and was targeting criminals associated with him.

The next six days saw the country gripped with uncertainty, until finally Mugabe resigned, paving the way for elections in 2018.

Mugabe’s ouster was met with scenes of jubilation across the country. Yet once the mood quietened, not everyone was convinced that his successor Mnangagwa would change the trajectory of the country.

“I vividly remember that day. I told my family, who were busy dancing, that Mnangagwa and Mugabe are in the same WhatsApp group. They are birds of the same feather,” Maiden Takawira, a high school teacher in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, told New Lines. “[Mnangagwa] oversaw the Gukurahunde massacres in Matabeleland, the political abductions, terrorizing the opposition. And when we experienced hyperinflation, it was under their watch, so nothing would change and now it has come to pass.”

The Zimbabwean academic and author Ibbo Mandaza says the coup has brought no change in Zimbabwe’s political and economic spheres.

“I had no illusions of the coup and what it meant for the country. As I watched people celebrating on TV, I said this is crazy, nothing good will come out of this. Sadly, all that has been confirmed. They have failed to turn things around both politically and economically,” Mandaza told New Lines.

Such was Zimbabwe’s desire for a new start that Mnangagwa ran on promises to restore the rule of law, revive the economy and combat corruption. This saw him win a highly contested general election in 2018.

He won the disputed poll with 51% of the ballot, while his main challenger, Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) received 44%.

“Corrupt activities will not be tolerated. We must inculcate a culture of hard and honest work and declare zero tolerance to corruption. No person will be allowed to loot or steal that which belongs to the people of Zimbabwe,” Mnangagwa said at his inauguration.

Under Mnangagwa’s watch, an investigation by South Africa’s Daily Maverick on cartel dynamics in Zimbabwe exposed networks worth billions of dollars dealing in gold, diamonds and cigarettes, as well as details of exploitation of the country’s diamonds by political and military elites.

Now, five years after the coup, Zimbabweans say the president has made little progress, and his security forces continue to commit serious human rights violations, such as torture, abductions and arbitrary arrests of political opponents, journalists, activists and government critics.

One of the most prominent abductions while both Mugabe and Mnangagwa were in office was that of the journalist Itai Dzamara, who was an outspoken critic of Mugabe’s regime. Itai was abducted from a barbershop in Harare’s Glen View suburb on March 9, 2015, and has not been seen since. His abduction happened days after he called on Mugabe to resign.

“When the coup happened, I had a ray of hope that the new administration would investigate Itai’s disappearance and give me answers,” Itai’s wife Sheffra told New Lines. “That hasn’t happened. I have been writing letters to President Mnangagwa but have not received any response. No one is doing anything about my husband’s disappearance.”

The award-winning journalist and filmmaker Hopewell Chin’ono has been detained three times on charges of “peddling falsehoods,” inciting violence ahead of an anti-government protest in July 2021 and obstruction of justice.

Chin’ono was remanded in prison for more than a month without bail for an exposé on corruption.

“The state uses laws to suppress media freedom. I was charged with obstruction of justice because I reported that the president’s niece had been offered bail unopposed after she had been caught at the airport trying to smuggle 6 kilograms [13 pounds] of gold. What that does is it sends a chill through other journalists, especially the young ones, so they stay away from stories that expose corruption,” said Chin’ono, sighing wearily as he recalled his incarceration.

Chin’ono continues to be a thorn in the government’s side with his near-daily criticism of the regime on Twitter.

“Someone must speak out for the voiceless and against this gangster state. Many wonder if I fear for my life, well I don’t. I’m at peace with whatever they want to do,” Chin’ono told New Lines.

Initially, at the time of the coup and the transition to the elections that saw Mnangagwa win, not all Zimbabweans were wary.

“After the 2017 coup, we got excited, and we said, ‘Let’s go home.’ I was one of those people that said, ‘Let’s give Emmerson Mnangagwa a chance,’” Trevor Ncube, chair of Alpha Media Holdings, recently told a business forum in Harare.

Five years later, Ncube’s optimism about the “new dawn” has waned. In October, a group of Zimbabwean magistrates revealed in an open letter to the Judicial Service Commission, the Auditor General and the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission that the judiciary has been “captured” by politicians and the Chief Justice Luke Malaba.

“Mnangagwa has shown an amazing degree of doing worse than Mugabe ever did. The most frightening thing he has done is the mutilation of our constitution and the capture of our judiciary,” Ncube said.

As well as Chin’ono, the politician Jacob Ngarivhume was also arrested and charged with inciting the public to commit violence in July 2020. He spent 45 days in prison and was denied bail four times. Both men were taken to court proceedings in handcuffs and leg irons, raising eyebrows because their charges did not warrant shackles.

As Mnangagwa struggles to control inflation and deal with the country’s chronic power cuts, rights groups and opposition parties complain about the government’s clampdown on dissent ahead of next year’s general elections.

The upcoming elections have reignited the hopes of the opposition, who have toiled for many years to change the status quo. Zimbabwe’s stagnation is increasingly creating a sense of despondency among the general populace. Yet, for the ruling party’s challengers, it could spark the flame of change that the country desperately needs.

Chamisa, who narrowly lost the 2018 elections to Mnangagwa, has since launched a new party called the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), following endless infighting in the MDC.

Since the launch of the CCC in January, several of its members have been arrested. Allegations of police brutality and political violence in general are rife in the run-up to the elections.

“ZANU-PF has continued to abuse state institutions to cause unfair competition, and also to impede and obstruct fair politics,” Chamisa told New Lines. “Our members are being arrested on the campaign trail. Zimbabwe is on fire, and it was started by ZANU-PF. They do not believe in fair competition. They have abandoned any shred of credible politics. This is why you can see that they’ve become [crocodile liberators] metaphorically and also practically.”

Another high-profile arrest was that of the Zimbabwean lawmaker Job Sikhala, who has been arrested 67 times in the past but never convicted. His latest arrest came in June, after he gave a speech at a memorial service for a CCC member, Moreblessing Ali, whose mutilated body was found days after she went missing. Sikhala had said the woman’s spirit would come back to avenge her death. The state accused Sikhala of mobilizing CCC supporters for violent action during Ali’s memorial service.

He was then charged with inciting violence and obstructing the course of justice. Sikhala remains in custody and has been denied bail.

Other prominent cases include the award-winning author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga, who was convicted of promoting public violence after she and her friend Julie Barnes took part in a peaceful protest calling for reforms, the release of jailed journalists and a better Zimbabwe for all.

“The only witness that the state brought against us were the police. They had no independent witnesses to say we were doing anything that constituted a breach of peace,” Dangarembga told New Lines.

Emmie Chiyindiko, a 29-year-old scientist, also spoke cynically about political persecution under Mnangagwa.

“These things give echoes of the government we marched against, the government we thought had resigned. This just screams ‘Mugabe era,’” she said.

Previous elections offer little cause for optimism that Zimbabwe’s woes will change soon. On more than one occasion, the opposition has scented victory only to see their hopes dashed when the final outcome has been revealed.

Further reason for concern is the partial stance of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which has been labeled biased and inept since the start of the Mugabe era.

Civil society groups have continually raised alarm over dubious voter lists and ghost voters appearing on the roll. The ZEC has been labeled as compromised, discredited and a tool of ZANU-PF and the state.

“The climate is not good for elections, and it would be pointless to hold them when the path is marred with irregularities,” said Mandaza. “We need to keep the military out of politics and institute electoral reforms if this country is to move forward.”

When Mnangagwa deposed Mugabe, one of the greatest hopes, even more fervent than for political freedom, was for an economic turnaround in an economy that had been run into the ground by misguided populist measures and a willingness to sacrifice rationality for political expediency. Yet the hoped-for improvements stalled and, despite cosmetic changes that have fooled no one, a lack of real change has led to international sanctions being maintained.

The U.S., U.K. and EU first imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe in the early 2000s. These sanctions targeted individuals who undermined democracy, committed grave human rights abuses or contributed to corruption on a large scale.

From the onset of his presidency, Mnangagwa declared that “Zimbabwe is open for business” and would reengage with the international community to pave the way for economic growth.

In October, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube announced that Zimbabwe would retain the world’s highest interest rate of 200% well into 2023.

However, Zimbabwe’s national statistics body is recording inflation at 255%, while the World Bank says extreme poverty in the country rose from 30% in 2017 to 50% during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Institute for Security Studies, investors are reluctant to put capital into Zimbabwe because it is viewed as high-risk, particularly with the sanctions in place. The Institute reports that companies in the U.S., Canada and Europe avoid doing business in Zimbabwe as they find it cumbersome to check whether local companies are tied to sanctioned people.

The exiled politician and nephew of Mugabe, Patrick Zhuwao, attributes the decline of the economy to the president and not entirely to sanctions.

“He is not honest, he is kleptocratic,” said Zhuwao in an interview from South Africa. “When he was talking about Zimbabwe being open for business, it was really about making himself available to meet business people for a fee … Some of us who know [Mnangagwa], knew his mantra that Zimbabwe is open for business was simply a channel for him to benefit.”

With the economy in the doldrums and the democratic space narrowing, many Zimbabweans say their hope lies in the 2023 general elections.

Despite previous election disappointments, this route remains the best hope for any meaningful change. It is testament to people’s resoluteness that they still believe in the power of the vote to lead to the transformation of Zimbabwe’s fortunes.

“Everyone must go and register to vote. Yes, we might not have confidence in ZEC as an electoral commission, but I believe that there is power in numbers. If we vote in large numbers, we will outmaneuver and outsmart the rigging machinations of the regime,” said Ngoni Danzwa, an unemployed youth who lives in Mbare, a township in Harare.

Zimbabweans hope that the will of the people can prevail, that they can be free to choose a leader who will take them to economic prosperity and a free and just society.

“Fighting, blood spilling, intimidating and abusing each other [are things] of the past,” said Temba Mliswa, Zimbabwe’s only independent member of Parliament. “Any political party that decides to take that strategy will not win.”

The Zimbabwean novelist, playwright and human rights activist Tsitsi Dangarembga will be speaking to New Lines on tomorrow’s episode of The Lede about Zimbabwe’s transition to democracy after the fall of Robert Mugabe. Subscribe to The Lede on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast app.

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