Five human rights activists were arrested in Zimbabwe on May 20 and 21, charged with a plot to subvert the government of sitting President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The arrests were justified by the state-owned newspaper The Herald’s allegations that the group had links to the government’s main opposition body, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, claiming the MDC Alliance was “hard at work laying the groundwork for civil unrest.” With a history of human rights abuses under former president Robert Mugabe, this case is further evidence that Zimbabwe’s sordid record with human rights has persisted under his successor Mnangagwa.
Despite having claimed he is “soft as wool” in one BBC interview, Mnangagwa, known as “the crocodile”, has earned a very different reputation. He has been connected to some of the worst atrocities committed by his party the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) against political opponents. Commenting on the arrests, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition stated that “the police, government and state media have been colluding to criminalise the work of human rights defenders, laying unfounded allegations against civil society leaders as agents of regime change who want to topple the government.” Several of the organisations mentioned in allegations against the group have labelled them as false and denied involvement in any acts of subversion. As such, it follows that the latest arrests appear to be further examples of the government’s use of arbitrary detention to stifle opposition. This pattern of oppression was condemned in a letter to Mnangagwa on February 4 by human rights organisations Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam International, in which they criticised “the escalating crackdown by your government on human rights defenders, civil society activists, labour and opposition leaders and members, and Zimbabweans protesting the recent fuel price increase”.
Having failed to reform laws restricting freedom of expression and the media, while also frequently being a proponent of political violence, Mnangagwa evidently has little concern for primary tenets of a functional democracy. Having said “There is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech”, it is clear that Mnangagwa operates with impunity in his suppression of basic human rights to the Zimbabwean public.
Mnangagwa came to power in November 2017 following a military coup against his predecessor Robert Mugabe, responding to mass protests and Zimbabwe’s declining economy. To legitimize his rule, peaceful elections were held in 2018 which the Zanu-PF won by only a narrow margin. The victory was disputed, however, and before the official announcement of the results protesters were being shot in the street. Subsequently, in response to strikes over the hiking of fuel prices by 130 percent, Mnangagwa asserted that groups deemed to be against the government would be targeted by authorities. Activist Rashid Mahiya, alongside opposition politicians Joanna Mamombe and Charlton Hwende, were arrested in connection with the protests and charged with “subverting a constitutional government”. Penalties for such charges include prison sentences of over 20 years. These recent arrests are not unique and will likely continue to be replicated unless action is taken.
The recent arrests and similar abuses under the Mnangagwa regime present a grim scene for the future development of human rights in Zimbabwe. They pose a sustained threat to the pursuit of democracy, global peace and security. Action must be taken to counteract such threats, namely in the global condemnation of these abuses and potential sanctions to dissuade such actions by the government in the future.