One of the first key concessions that President Emmerson Mnangagwa made when he took over from Robert Mugabe almost two years ago was that the previous administration, which he was part of, lacked democratic credentials.
On his return from brief exile in South Africa after he was sacked by Mugabe, Mnangagwa declared that Zimbabwe was witnessing a “new and unfolding democracy”.
He was speaking on the backdrop of one of the largest marches in the history of Zimbabwe that forced his predecessor to resign after days of pressure by the military had failed to convince him to give up power voluntarily.
Mnangagwa charged that “the people had spoken”.
“The voice of the people is the voice of God. Today we are witnessing the beginning of a new and unfolding democracy.”
Many Zimbabweans, who had endured Mugabe’s authoritarian rule for nearly 40 years, believed that the incoming president meant that people would no longer be abducted, tortured or imprisoned for merely voicing concern about how they are governed.
They genuinely believed that gone were the days where the government would ban protests or use heavy-handed tactics to prevent citizens from expressing themselves.
Mnangagwa went on to make a lot of promises about opening up the democratic space and ensuring that Zimbabweans were free in the run-up to last year’s elections. He called his administration “the new dispensation”.
However, since the tragic events of August 1, 2018 when soldiers opened fire on fleeing protesters in Harare, killing six on the streets, there are signs that little has changed in Zimbabwe.
In January, Mnangagwa deployed soldiers to quell protests that had turned violent across the country.
Human rights groups estimate that at least 17 people were killed by soldiers and several women were raped during the crackdown.
The events of the past two weeks, where government banned MDC demonstrations in five cities, again cast doubts about government’s commitment to opening up the democratic space.
Visuals of police bashing people on the streets and reports of abductions of activists have drawn criticism from the European Union, the United States and United Kingdom, among other Western countries.
The government has spent thousands of US dollars on lobbyists in Washington to pitch the story that there is indeed a new dispensation in Zimbabwe.
The money, however, will go to waste if the government does not concretely address the human rights violations and stop undemocratic tendencies such as restricting freedom of assembly and free speech.
In other words, Mnangagwa’s rhetoric about the “unfolding democracy” will remain meaningless if it’s not matched by actions.