Slow progress on reforms by new leadership ahead of elections

In November 2017, President Robert Mugabe was ousted in a military coup and subsequently replaced by his former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has also been accused of human rights violations. During the coup, the army arrested and detained a number of Mugabe’s associates without providing information about the arrest, or places and conditions of detention.

In his inaugural speech on 24th November, President Mnangagwa confirmed that elections would take place as scheduled by August 2018, but did not address the issue of meaningful security sector, media and electoral reforms to ensure free and fair elections. Various other laws are also yet to be aligned to the new constitution.

In December 2017, President Mnangagwa unveiled a new cabinet in which three senior military officials who played a central role in bringing him to power were given key jobs. One of those is air force commander Perrence Shiri, who is the new minister of lands, agriculture and rural resettlement. Shiri is known to many Zimbabweans as the former commander of the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, which played a major role in massacres in western Zimbabwe's Matabeleland in the 1980s.

More than 20,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed between 1981-1987 across Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, in what Mugabe called Gukurahundi - a Shona word, meaning "the rain that seeps away the chaff". The government's stated objective for the operation at the time was to target dissidents. Mugabe set up the Dumbutshena Commission and Chihambakwe Committee in the 1980s which carried out investigations into the Gukurahundi massacres. The reports were never made public because the government argued that publishing the report could spark violence over past wrongs.

In an interview in January 2018, President Mnangagwa, who was the Minister of National Security when the Gukurahundi atrocities occurred, refused to apologise for his involvement, saying that the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission established in January 2018 was adequate to address past issues.

In the lead up to the anticipated elections, progress on reforms has been slow to materialise, while civil society and journalists continue to face threats and attacks. In March 2018, Human Rights Watch called on Mnangagwa to demonstrate a real commitment to leveling the electoral playing field by undertaking the necessary electoral, security sector and legislative reforms. Election watchdog, the Electoral Resource Centre (ERC), raised concerns that the country could hold its election without having the electoral laws aligned with the current constitution. 

Expression

Human rights defender attacked in Kwekwe

On 27th March 2018, human rights defender Makesure Choga was attacked with stones, sticks and knives in Kwekwe, while visiting his family. The perpetrators were reportedly members of a youth group called 'Alshabab' with suspected links to the ruling ZANU-PF party. The attackers told Makesure that next time they would attack his family. He has been hospitalised due to the injuries from the attack. 

Makesure Choga is a human rights defender and leader of Mbizo Community Theatre. He uses drama and theatre to encourage young people to engage in the upcoming elections.

Journalists assaulted in Masvingo

On 21st March, two provincial leaders of the of the country’s main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T), stormed the premises of the TellZim Newspaper in Masvingo and verbally assaulted and threatened journalists and staff working there. 

The incident occurred after a story was published byTellZim Newspaper on 15th March, allegedly setting out details of how the MDC-T in Masvingo province was planning to oust all councilors currently in power.

The African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) and its member, MISA-Zimbabwe, denounced the attacks calling on:

“...the leadership of the MDC-T to demonstrate in practice the party’s commitment to protecting journalists’ safety and safeguarding freedom of expression rights…[we] condemn the recent attacks on journalists and the media fraternity in the country. These attacks are clearly intended to gag the media, thereby preventing it from carrying out its watchdog role”.
Demands for inquiry into the disappearance of activist, Itai Dzamara

On 30th January 2018, pro-democracy and human right activists called on President Mnangagwa to urgently institute an independent inquiry into the disappearance of activist, Itai Dzamara, who was allegedly abducted by state security agents in 2015.

Speaking at a gathering to commemorate Dzamara’s disappearance at Africa Unity Square in Harare, the missing activists’ younger brother, Patson, said that family, friends and Zimbabweans expected the government to order an inquiry into his sibling’s case.

As a family, we demand the government of President Mnangagwa to own up to the disappearance of my brother and we need the government to institute an independent inquiry, reparations, to bring him back alive or dead and to engage the family”.

He claims his brother was abducted by military intelligence at the behest of deposed leader, Robert Mugabe.

The police subsequently announced the case on the national broadcaster, requesting that anyone with information on Dzamara’s whereabouts to come forward. Activists, however, condemned this move as insincere.

Report on assault on online freedoms

On 9th April 2018, the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI), in conjunction with Media Centre, released a report entitled: "How the right to be online has been assaulted in Zimbabwe: Consequences on the work of human rights and democracy defenders".

According to the report, internet freedom among Zimbabweans has been curtailed directly or indirectly by the state and this has stifled human rights defenders and citizens at large. These acts include censorship, shutdowns, blackouts, the passage of restrictive laws and prosecutions in the courts. Such barriers to internet access are expected to intensify as the electoral period draws closer.

The report concluded with recommendations that the government should regulate the internet to protect rights, rather than limit access, and that human rights defenders should petition the government to ensure that laws are reviewed in accordance with constitutional rights.

Court frees journalist Kenneth Nyangani

On 14th December 2017, the court freed NewsDay journalist Kenneth Nyangani. He was arrested in October 2017 for reporting that the former First Lady Grace Mugabe had donated clothing, including used underwear, to ZANU-PF supporters in Mutare and was thus charged with criminal nuisance under Section 46(2) (v) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.

Peaceful Assembly

Zimbabwe's doctors go on strike

Doctors at public hospitals across Zimbabwe went on strike in early March 2018 calling on the government to meets their demands for better pay and working conditions. The action was the first major labour dispute under President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

According to Mxolisi Ngwenya, spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA), which represents more than 1,000 members, the main issue was that hospitals did not have any medical supplies or sufficient equipment. In addition, the government had not, as agreed four years ago, increased on-call allowances for doctors and had failed to fulfill other promises for better compensation and working conditions.

On 31st March, Zimbabwe's doctors ended the 31-day strike after the Health Service Board agreed to review their on-call allowances and to provide equipment needed in hospitals.

NUST students sustain injuries as police suppress protest

Some 60 National University of Science (NUST) students were arrested on 26th February 2018 for demonstrating against a stand-off between lecturers and management at the institution. Some of the NUST students sustained injuries when the police in riot gear rolled out water cannons to suppress the students’ demonstration and set dogs on them.

NUST lecturers have been on a strike for some time to protest the alleged mismanagement of resources at the institution. This has paralysed operations at the university, with students claiming that they have gone for four weeks without lectures.

After the students’ arrest, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) deployed its team of lawyers to offer emergency legal support services to students who were detained at Bulawayo Central Police Station.

Reform of the Public Order and Security Act (POSA)

In January 2018, Justice Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said that the Home Affairs Ministry was looking at amending laws to align legislation with the constitution, namely the Public Order and Security Act (POSA). This statement followed President Emmerson Mnangagwa pledge to respect civil liberties. 

The POSA enacted in January 2002 was part of an overall strategy by the government to hinder the campaigning activities of the opposition in the run-up to the presidential elections in March 2002. It also sought to tighten restrictions on independent media and gave police sweeping powers. POSA has been used by the authorities to target opposition supporters, independent media and human rights activists, and specifically to restrict their rights to free assembly, criticism of the government and president, as well as to engage in, advocate or organise acts of peaceful civil disobedience.

In March, Human Rights Watch called on the Mnangagwa government to:

“Take steps to amend or repeal repressive laws such as the …the Public Order and Security Act (POSA). These laws, which have vague defamation clauses and draconian penalties, were used under Mugabe to severely curtail basic rights…failure to repeal or significantly revise these laws as well as developing ways to address the partisan conduct of the police leaves little chance for the full enjoyment of rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly prior to and during the coming elections”.

In April 2018, however, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice, led by Fortune Chasi, defended POSA, saying that although the law was generally perceived as oppressive, it was necessary to maintain order and peace at public gatherings. POSA remains unaligned with constitutional provisions.

Association

Violent intra-party clashes within MDC

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has been paralysed by disagreements over who should have succeeded its long-serving former leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who died of cancer on 14th February 2018.

In early March, opposing factions within the MDC were drawn into violent clashes. At least fifteen members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were left bloodied and injured, with some treated in hospital, after rows between backers of the current vice president Thokozani Khupe and rival Nelson Chamisa, both contesting for the presidency of the MDC.

Tsvangirai's three former deputies Chamisa, Elias Mudzuri and Khupe all claim to be the former leader's rightful successor. But Chamisa was chosen by the party's national council to be the MDC's leader and candidate for the presidential polls.

Raising concerns about the violence, Human Rights Watch stated:

“As Zimbabwe prepares for national elections this year, slated for between July 21 and August 22, it is important that all parties ensure that their members act peacefully, allowing others to freely associate and express themselves no matter their political views, and permit the people of Zimbabwe to choose their leaders without fear of violence.”