BY SITABILE DEWA
The outbreak of the coronavirus in Africa has exerted social, economic, political, health and environmental challenges on a continent that was already on its knees.
These challenges thus pose a threat to democracy, human rights and rule of law. Zimbabwe has not been spared by the ravages of the pandemic.
Since the advent of the virus, severe restrictions on fundamental human rights and democracy have been recorded countrywide, with the state descending heavily on dissenting voices and using unorthodox means to silence critics.
More, than 5,8 million Zimbabweans, both in urban and rural areas, are food-insecure.
Many Zimbabweans are now relying on donor assistance for survival.
This is further straining an already fragile relationship between the government and the citizens.
The pandemic has also created a breeding ground for corruption and those who have spoken publicly against the vice have been subjected to harassment and intimidation by state security agents, a case in point being that of a renowned journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono, who was jailed for six weeks for exposing corrupt acts by State officials and those linked to the president.
Some of the gross human rights violations recorded so far are as follows:
l The criminalisation of civil society work. The state has been obsessed with insulting, name-calling and labelling civil society leaders sellouts, especially those who have come out strongly to speak against its excesses.
Many civil society organisation (CSO) leaders were forced into hiding just before the July 31, 2020 planned demonstrations.
Some of those harassed include Namatai Kwekweza, Vongai Zimudzi, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Obert Masaraure, Peter Mutasa, Noxolo Maphosa, Tawanda Muchehiwa, Takudzwa Ngadziore and many more opposition political activists.
The nature of victimisation included arbitrary arrests, assault, abductions and torture.
The safety of these human rights defenders and activists is still under threat.
On September 29, 2020, State security minister Owen Ncube held a press conference where he again threatened CSO leaders and accused them of attempting to overthrow the government.
These false allegations by the State expose CSO leaders to danger and are a direct attack on their lives.
Another case of criminalisation of CSO work was uncalled-for attacks on the Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association after it filed a court order against plans by some Chinese officials to conduct mining activities in the middle of Hwange National Park.
The organisation was subjected to intense attacks and labelling by government officials.
Shrinking of democratic space
It is essential to remind the Zimbabwean government that what is under lockdown is the Covid-19 virus, not citizens’ fundamental constitutional rights and civil liberties.
The unwarranted clampdown on human rights defenders and activists in the country is as if some sections of the constitution, especially section 59, have been suspended.
Section 59 gives Zimbabweans the right to demonstrate, petition, associate and assemble, and all these rights have been criminalised under the guise of enforcing lockdown regulations.
The Zimbabwe Peace Project recorded 1 498 human rights violations between March and August 2020.
Women’s Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence (WALPE) has documented 570 violations against women human rights defenders and activists from March to September 20204.
On March 31, 2020, the Supreme Court issued a controversial judgement on the internal affairs of the MDC which many suspects were an attempt by the ruling Zanu PF party to destabilise and weaken the main opposition and push for a one-party state.
Concerns of a compromised judicial system have been raised over the years and many unfair rulings, especially against CSO leaders and opposition members during this Covid-19 period, have further confirmed the allegations
The judgement led to recalls of MPs and councillors aligned to Nelson Chamisa and his MDC Alliance party, forcing by-elections in these areas.
Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) chairperson Justice Priscilla Chigumba indicated that the by-elections would cost the state $18 million.
This is money that should be used for other essentials, for example, purchasing personal protective equipment for frontline health workers.
The recalls mean these wards and constituencies currently have no representation, denying citizens the right to representation and participation, stifling freedom of choice and association.
We should note the fact that the by-elections are also coming at a time electoral reforms have not been implemented.
The 2018 election observer mission reports and recommendations are gathering dust.
The Covid-19-induced lockdown saw the government pushing for the amendment of the constitution for a record 27 times.
At a time the nation is battling with the pandemic, the government misplaced priorities and rail-roaded the public into Bill hearings, which were ill-planned.
The Act to amend the constitution is being seen by many as a strategy to consolidate power by the president.
CSOs raised awareness on the amendment and its implications on governance and democracy.
The majority of those who attended the Bill hearings rejected in toto the proposed amendments.
Members of the state security forces on September 6, 2020 killed two assailants who had gunned down a soldier in Chivhu in a possible case of extra-judicial killings .
The circumstances leading to the incident are not clear, but there was a general sentiment that the state should have investigated first before taking the law into their own hands.
This poses a threat to the safety of Zimbabweans and of human rights defenders and activists in particular.
Violence against women
The outbreak of Covid-19 saw a sharp increase in gender-based violence (GBV). According to Musasa Project, its national GBV hotline (Musasa) recorded a total of 4 615 calls receiving GBV reports from the beginning of the lockdown on March 30 to date.
About 94% of the calls are from women. Unfortunately, cases of State-sponsored violence against women human rights defenders and activists were also noted in the period under review.
A case in point is the abduction, sexual abuse, torture, assault and arbitrary arrest of Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova by state security agents.
The trio was victimised and abused in May 2020 for demanding from the government social safety nets and cushioning of the poor who are wallowing in poverty because of Covid-19-induced regulations.
l Reports of the militarisation of the state in the country have been rife.
The active involvement of the military has been seen in sectors such as health, agriculture, economy, judiciary, mining and the executive.
This compromises democracy, human rights and rule of law. This stifles dissenting voices and increases human rights violations against human rights defenders and activists.
Non-state actors’ position on the challenges
Some CSOs have been cowed into submission by the perpetual threats to their work.
They have resorted to being fence-sitters and avoid upsetting the status quo.
But others such as Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, the Zimbabwe National Students Unions, Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe and WALPE etc, as a matter of principle, have chosen to push back and continue fighting for democracy and good governance.
What needs to be done?
There is need for CSOs to intensify advocacy and lobby strategies locally through engaging independent commissions that support democracy such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, ZEC and Zimbabwe Gender Commission.
Political parties and Parliament should also be engaged.
In the region, there is need to intensify engagements with South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party, Southern African Development Community, African Union and push for a resolution of the Zimbabwean crisis through advocating for an inclusive national dialogue process and implementation of political and economic reforms. At the international level, human rights institutions such as the United Nations, Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women should be engaged. In terms of engagements within the regional CSO space, there is need for more acts of solidarity such as the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter and also joint sustainable campaigns. There is also the need to push for strong institutions, not individuals, and continuous calls for the respect of constitutionalism
l Sitabile Dewa is the executive director of Women Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence (WALPE)