As of January 18, more than 12 people had died, no less than 78 had suffered gunshot injuries, and at least 240 had been beaten and tortured by the Zimbabwean state. More than 466 had been arbitrarily arrested and detained, while hundreds are displaced or in safe houses in and outside the country.
Added to that is the shutdown of the internet and social media. All this points to a vicious authoritarian state showing its true face, this time in response to a stay-away protesting a massive petrol price rise.
The latest events are happening in the context of years of economic crisis, and the government’s months-long legitimacy crisis.
The last few days have wiped out any trust people might have had in the ability of the November 2017 coup that toppled former President Robert Mugabe to bring democratic and socio-economic rights to Zimbabwe’s long-suffering people.
Yet one wonders: is this a vicious repressive state or the accumulative effect of institutions that decayed under the doddering Mugabe; now disintegrated, dead and disinterred thanks to diminishing dollars?
Will Zimbabwe’s future be even worse than its terrible past? Can its neighbours bang some heads together to create a “transitional authority” of some sort, as Zimbabwean scholar and activist Professor Brian Raftopoulos suggests?
That’s needed, clearly. But it would not be advisable to raise one’s hopes.
A veteran of many struggles against Mugabe once said that the old tyrant’s main problem was his inability to abide people smarter than him. So he surrounded himself with sycophants, and the odd idiot savant.
As another astute Zimbabwean observer put it to me, Mugabe was good at playing the country’s many opposing groups against one another. He would grant one the hope of ascendance, then pull it away in favour of another grasping gang. It created a precarious balance. Now one of the groups has the levers of state in hand, the awkward equilibrium is no more – and the winners are split in all directions too.
With Mugabe gone, the victors – Mnangagwa’s faction of the ruling Zanu-PF – have no idea how to police themselves, let alone an economy, their subjects and the opposition. Harvard professor and emeritus president of the World Peace Foundation, Robert Rotberg, has politely called their plans’ “barmy”.
My guess is that the men and women in charge are following some of the advice of their financial guru Professor Mthuli Ncube. He’s one of those mathematical geniuses whose ideology of short term pain producing fantastical gain needs either a lesson or two in politics or an iron fist. He has the latter.
It’s likely that those charged with implementing “austerity for prosperity” so zealously are fighting among themselves while their soldiers loot and kill on their own, as well as their officers’, will.
As the spoils’ scarcity worsens and power’s centre cannot hold – all in the shadows cast by the near dead – stories of post-coup coups and impeachments pop up. Police spokesperson Charity Charamba even believes the soldiers looting and torturing are people who have stolen their uniforms, so any “retired, deserted, and AWOL” soldiers must
immediately hand over uniforms either to the police or the Zimbabwe Defence Forces”.
A good excuse to round up suspected mutineers?
President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced the gargantuan increase in fuel prices and then took his begging bowl to the oligarchic remnants of the Soviet ruins. His next stop was due to be Davos where he hoped to charm those with money by repeating his “open for business” mantra. But a 60,000 strong petition helped keep him away.
Mnangagwa has returned from his travels with power retained, although now more tainted than before. He’s likely to be at his crudest. Presidential spokesperson George Charamba promises that so far there has been only seen a “foretaste of things to come”, and that Zanu-PF would “revisit” the sections of the constitution protecting rights of association and expression, “which we now know are prone to abuse by so-called proponents of democracy”.
As this week began, an eerie calm settled. But many civil society and political opposition activist members are still in hiding, lest the fate of teachers’ union president Obert Masaraure, abducted in the early hours of 18 January, tortured, and dumped at Harare’s Central Police Station, befall them.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum also chronicles the torture of Rashid Mahiya’s mother and his pastor. He is the chairperson of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and Executive Director of Heal Zimbabwe Trust, and is accused of “masterminding” last week’s protests.
Movement for Democratic Change member and former Minister of Education Senator David Coltart has accused the military and those it has hired of crimes against humanity. In personal communication from Bulawayo he writes that last week’s debacle was a “deliberate campaign to punish the working class people” in his city.
A dream deferred
The nightmare of August 1 last year – when the military brutally clamped down on opposition supporters protesting against the announcement that Mnangagwa had won the presidential election, killing at least six – started to dash the post-Mugabe leader’s dream of legitimacy.
Economic revival might have done the trick: now there’s no chance of that. Last week’s events have exposed the fantasy in full finality. The only Zimbabweans still in the trance are its supposed leaders.
Their neighbours seem caught in it too. They had better wake up before the maelstrom mauls them in the morning.