Within the past week, dozens of civilians in Zimbabwe have been targeted, detained, and even killed by the country’s military amid protests over the proposed increase in fuel prices. The military, which has played a pivotal role in the country’s leadership since its independence from British rule in 1980, has justified its continuing onslaught by claiming that those who protest are ‘enemies of the state’. Amnesty International has reported that this includes children as young as 11 years old, some of whom are being convicted as ‘adults’ in courts around the country.
The violence first erupted in the country when President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced an extensive rise in fuel prices by 150 per cent earlier this month. In response, members of the population invoked their rights to freedom of expression by protesting the increase in prices. At the same time, the military and security forces sought to suppress the protests via means of arrests and beatings, some of which resulting in rape and even death. Children under the age of 16 have also been assaulted and beaten for taking part in the protests. Many have been arrested and placed in cells amongst adults.
Current president Emmerson Mnangagwa has criticised the violence as “unacceptable”, following accusations of beatings and “systematic torture” recognised by his government. Despite this, Dewa Mavhinga from Human Rights Watch has stated that not enough is being done to prevent these atrocities, claiming that “Beatings, harassment and other abuses have continued after Mnangagwa’s return and there are no clear actions from the government to hold accountable those committing the abuses”. On the other hand, Alphios Makotore, a spokesperson for the Zimbabwe National Army, argues that the continued brutality of the military is only carried out by a few sole officers, “the actions by these bogus elements have subsequently put the image of the organization into disrepute”.
The targeting of children in the military’s latest onslaught illustrates the extent to which the military will go to in order to suppress the protests. Such violence serves only to prolong conflict in the country. Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, argues for a long-term approach that focuses on bottom-up grievances by the locals, “to find ways of engaging with the population about their legitimate grievances and to stop the crackdown against protesters”. Responding to issues and problems in the country with violence, amid the labelling of children as ‘enemies of the state’, Shamdasani states, “is not the way to react to the expression of economic grievances by the population”.
Dewa Mavhinga summarises the country’s response to the violence sufficiency; “Mnangagwa should not pretend that the misconduct is unacceptable to his government when they are taking no action”. By labelling children as ‘enemies of the state,’ it is clear that more is being done to justify the violence rather than to advocate non-violence. Therefore, to address the immediate violence, the rights and safety of those protesting should be prioritised and protected. Ensuring the protection of these rights would further move the country away from its militaristic past and instead encourage the transition towards a stable democracy. To ensure this transition, addressing the long-term solution must inevitably involve reducing the military’s involvement in political and social spheres. This will provide an important step in reducing a ‘culture of fear’ that currently resides in the daily life of children and adults alike in Zimbabwe.
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