BY: KATIE DOBOSZ KENNEY
The sudden death of beloved Zimbabwean singer and songwriter, Oliver Mtukudzi on Wednesday, January 23 marks another emotional blow for the southern African nation embroiled in chaotic instability. Zimbabwe has descended into civil protests and deadly backlash from the military following an announcement by President Emmerson Mnangagwa on January 12 to increase the price of fuel by 150%. Singer Oliver Mtutkudzi, or Tuku, was a symbol of unity and Zimbabwean culture and an advocate for human rights, as well as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. The tragedy of his passing is an almost-perfect metaphor for what many in Zimbabwe and the international community are considering the death of a fair judicial system, freedom of expression and information, and democratic processes.
The civil unrest comes after a short-lived period of celebration following the overthrow/resignation of repressive authoritarian, President Robert Mugabe in 2017. And though violence briefly broke out after the elections in the summer of 2018, the end of the Mugabe regime was met with hope for economic improvement and an end to political corruption. However, financial instability and questionable democratic processes remain a pervasive struggle for Zimbabwe, with or without Mugabe. In 2008, a hyperinflation of the Zimbabwean dollar came from the overprinting of bills, resulting in an overhaul of the local currency and the introduction of both U.S. dollars and government “bond notes,” whose value has been estimated anywhere between 4 to 6 bonds per 1 USD. The inability to accurately value the bond note further compounds the issue of overpriced goods and inadequate salaries, along with contributing to the growth of and reliance on Zimbabwe’s black market economy. Zimbabweans have grown tired of waiting for Mnangagwa to fulfill his campaign promises of rebuilding the economy post-Mugabe; last week, they took matters into their own hands with protests, walkouts, and strikes all over the country.
The most recent protests began with purposeful and disruptive actions, including transportation blockades and the halting of court proceedings as activists marched into a courthouse in Bulawayo. The actions were met with aggressive and unrelenting crack-downs by the military, leading the arrests of over 600 people, the death of 12, and multiple reports of torture and inhumane treatment such as firing live ammunition into crowds and home raids from the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum. Fair judicial processing is unlikely for those imprisoned; most have been denied bail and many trials have been expedited for sentencing. The government response is reminiscent of the Mugabe regime, who employed the use of military and police roadblocks as well as checkpoints. A spokeswoman for the police explained that the checkpoints are in place to arrest those looting during the protests, but a quick look at #ZimbabweShutdown on Twitter reveals video and photo evidence of widespread police and military brutality targeting anyone suspected of participating in anti-government demonstrations.
Despite calls from Zimbabweans, the EU, and the UN human rights officeto end the violence, the government has made it clear that demonstrations and protests will not be tolerated. In an effort to further stifle civil organization, the government implemented a complete internet shutdown from January 18-21. Even during the shutdown, local people relied on the use of VPNsto stay connected to each other and the crisis. Shutting off or limiting access to the internet is a tactic used by authoritarian governments to quell organization and silence dissenting voices that so desperately need and want to be heard. In an interview with CNN, political activist Samm Farai Monro explained that the protests are an expression of the anger and frustration felt by many Zimbabweans about the lack of job opportunities and rising costs. Twenty-one instances of government mandated internet shutdowns were recorded all over Africa in 2018.
International intervention is unlikely, so regional powers will play a crucial role in not only bringing the violence to a decisive end, but also helping to salvage Zimbabwe’s economy. The African Union has been quiet with regard to the violent protests, as it seems preoccupied with its plans to create Wakanda One, Africa’s technological hubbased on the fictional Wakanda from Black Panther with land donated from both Zimbabwe and Zambia. The most poised regional influence is neighboring South Africa by virtue of its economic stability and international connections, but also as the nation is host to anywhere between 1 and 5 million Zimbabwean migrants.
South Africa experienced a similar political shake-up when longtime President Jacob Zuma resigned from office amid significant pressure in February 2018, and implemented targeted measures to more actively fight political corruption. Though political parties in South Africa do not often see eye to eye, in the case of Zimbabwe they are finding common ground, particularly on the issue of lifting international sanctions. Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s current President and a member of the ANC, and Julius Mulema, head of the Economic Freedom Fighters have both cited Mugabe era sanctions from the United States and the EU as having a strangulating effect on Zimbabwe’s economic progression. Additionally, South Africa is willing to leverage its influence with international financial institutions to broker a deal alleviating Zimbabwe’s $16.9 billion debt to the World Bank, African Development Bank, and the European Investment Bank. Regional stability and economic prosperity certainly rides on a peaceful end to the violence in Zimbabwe. As Julius Mulema remarked to The Citizen, “a weaker Zimbabwe leads to a weaker SADC (Southern African Development Community).”
In the days ahead, the government will be faced with more protests, as civil servants prepare to begin a strike on Friday, January 25. Further attempts have been made to stamp out further anti-government demonstration through the imprisonment of high level officials Japhet Moyo, head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and Pastor Evan Mawarire, political activist, both of whom face upwards of 20 years in prison. And though economic resolve is not likely to come before then, the government of Zimbabwe should heed the regional and international calls for freedom of expression without violence.
Katie Dobosz Kenney holds an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University with a concentration in Peacebuilding. An educator for almost 10 years, Katie has developed global and peace education curricula in Florida, Mississippi, and Timor-Leste. Katie currently works as a graduate program administrator at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and has co-led study abroad programs to South Africa, UAE, and Rwanda.
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