24 January 2019

Zimbabwe: National Shutdown and Protests in Acbos Context

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The Alliance of Community Based Organizations is deeply disturbed by the unfolding socio-political events of last week (Monday 14 January) in light of the economic situation in the country that has certainly taken a turn for the worst. Our operating areas and close proximity to the communities have made it possible to see and take note of the chaotic period with a particular focus on its impact on the citizen in grass-roots Zimbabwe. Below is a piece looking into the issue, our standpoint and what we as a citizen focused consortium expect from the authorities in addressing the citizen's grievances.

Prelude

2019 began in earnest with a sombre realization that the troubles of the previous year (years to be precise), would not only continue to sit on the ordinary citizen's back but do so with renewed and intense suffering reminiscent of the dark 2007-08 years. Irony says its perhaps the 10-year Anniversary to mark a period where Zimbabwe's twisted democratic past caught up and burst out into the open for all to see, a period marred by political violence, deaths and unimaginable economic chaos.

10 years later, a "New Dispensation" in place following the November 2017 resignation of R. G Mugabe, Zimbabwe is FINALLY "Open for Business" and making significant strides (non stop flights, mega deals) in reengaging the world while the citizen in rural Zimbabwe shares a reed mat with poverty itself. Such is the contrast between the reality being presented to the world and that being lived by the majority of Zimbabweans, the worst affected being from the rural and farming communities who as history has shown time and again, suffer triple the effects of whatever negative socio-political and economic problems the urban folk may experience.

The "New Dispensation" and Today's Zimbabwe

While the new government started off on a good footing for many hopefuls, the optimism was short lived as Zimbabwe‟s economic problems persisted in spite of the "technocrat" cabinet set up by the President.

The 30 July Harmonized Elections and the deadly violence that followed (August 1 shootings), the introduction of oppressing taxes particularly the 2% tax on all electronic money platforms by Minister Mthuli Ncube, payment of vehicle duty in foreign currency, the increasingly unstable Bond Note (outrageous black market rates), inflation and fuel shortages are some of the setbacks that have led many to question the administration's capacity to stand with the people, something echoed by the President‟s silence up until the night he presented a whole State of the Nation Address (SONA) which had nothing but 140% increases in fuel prices with petrol and diesel going for $3.22 and $3.11 respectively under the new changes and USD prices ($1.12/litre-diesel and $1.24/litre petrol) for tourists, NGOs and others at a time when people were hoping for a reprieve.

Fuel pricing has and will probably always have a mirror effect on other commodities despite the President's call for businesses to not raise their prices. The morning following the announcement, several CBOs and citizens reported closed stores in Growth Points, and some demanding USD.

Presently, in some rural communities cooking oil is said to be going for at least $16 in local currency. Fertilizers, seeds and other farming inputs have become nothing short of a sad memory and painful glance into the future for the ordinary citizen in rural Zimbabwe, many failing to till their lands, as they have nothing to put in it. Travel has been severely cut down as most cars spend a significant amount of time queued up for rather than serving their intended purpose while public transport fares have all gone up by at 350% meaning the 2018 Festive Season wasn't as festive as the name suggests for the ordinary citizen.

The unstable currency situation has severely affected the education sector as well, school uniforms have quadrupled in prices, fees have skyrocketed and many youths of school age in rural Zimbabwe are facing the prospect of sitting the first term out. The girl child faces early marriage, abuse in households as some go from being students to becoming maids while others are forced into sex work where the word abuse doesn't come anywhere to describing the horrors they go through. This is the reality being lived by rural Zimbabweans, a reality the privileged would never deem possible in the 21st Century. It is sad to note that this reality is one that can be completely averted, one that is born of entitled and selfish socio-economics and politics that are insensitive to the people's plight.

Monday 14 January Protests

Following the President's announcement of fuel price hikes and presumed admission of the parity between the Bond Note and USD as stated before, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) among other activists began calling for a nationwide stay-away starting Monday 14 January in response, urging the citizenry to unite in peacefully pushing the government to ease its people's pain. The protests quickly turned sour as reports of widespread violence began circulating. CBOs reported children and teachers being beaten up, tear gas being used on citizens and gunshot sounds in Mutare. In Gwanda (Matebeleland South), businesses have been temporarily closed down. The situation however, remains tense with violence having being reported in Bulawayo where police vehicles were set on fire while stones and other objects were littered all over, blocking roads while angry citizens engaged in running battles with the police backed by armed soldiers in some cases. Similarly, Bindura (Mashonaland Central) and the surrounding communities have been relatively quiet with businesses having closed up in fear of violent protests that have seen some shops being torched and looted in Bulawayo and parts of Harare. Other notable cases of violent protests on the day include the torching of a police station in Chitungwiza, a Toll Gate and Political party offices.

Unconstitutional Response and Abuse of Human Rights

The ACBOs condemns violence in all its forms, and the ensuring chaos that began on the 14th of January has not only put the ordinary citizen‟s life at risk of severe injury or worse but also caused widespread damage to property. While the President is in Davos negotiating mega deals with his Eastern counterparts, Zimbabweans are at grips with the rampant abuse of human rights born out of the protests with the most affected being women, children and citizens from rural and farming communities where poverty is a mainstay in many households.

In a matter of hours, reports of shootings had already began to circulate, on grisly but notable case being that of a woman who had been shot in the leg while presumably minding her own business. This is reminiscent of the August 1 shootings where an innocent woman was caught up and shot in the back by soldiers, her only sin being that she happened to be at the wrong place at a very wrong time. Countless other reports of shootings have emerged, some unconfirmed suggesting that over 40 people had been shot at and sustained injuries while a few lost their lives as a result. As noted before, Manicaland CBOs reported cases of children and teachers being beaten up at Chikanga Primary School while the police threw teargas and gunshots could be heard from nearby.

Furthermore, according to many, the death toll could have risen up to over 100 after the army, police and rogue political elements in some high density suburbs (Glen Norah, Glen View, Highfields, Epworth, Kadoma etc.) allegedly launched a brutal crackdown on those suspected to have taken part in the protests and widespread destruction of property with a little added help from the internet blackout to conceal the gross and barbaric acts of human rights abuse.

The Internet Blackout allegedly gave the government, army, police and militias from certain political parties the room to torture, abduct and kill. One twitter user (name withheld) painfully narrated how her 27 year old son had been murdered by the army inside the family living room whilst another individual on the same platform described how a 7 year old child had been left near dead after a severe beating whilst an older man was forced to swim in raw sewage by soldiers in uniform.

This attempt to trample on and silence the people is not only ridiculous but misses the point by so many miles. It is common sense that the people do not eat nor drive WhatsApp and Facebook, blocking avenues of voicing dissent does not do away with the problem, worse still when one makes use of the blackout to cause widespread suffering.

Such is the insensitivity of Zimbabwean politics, the lived reality of the ordinary Zimbabwean citizen.

National Shutdown and Young Women

The unfolding national shutdown and the violent protests that came with it have had a detrimental impact on women particularly those from rural and peri-urban communities. Reports from CBOs and news sources indicate that the week-long stay away and brutal crackdown by the army following the violent protests attacked human rights indiscriminately, leaving women and children suffering from physical and emotional wounds regardless of their participation in the looting.

While videos and reports on protests show men being at the forefront, it is disturbing to note that young women suffered heavily during and post the clashes with security forces. A young woman was shot in the head in Chitungwiza for taking videos of the chaotic protests. A video of a woman being pushed on a wheelbarrow after being shot in the legs circulated on social media, one of the many to have gotten caught up and left with markings of war while others suffered varying degrees of sexual violence in the chaos that engulfed high density suburbs and some rural communities Monday overnight. Rashid Mahiya of Crisis Coalition Zimbabwe's mother was abducted and heavily assaulted along with his young brother. Furthermore, one individual used social media site Facebook to narrate how abductors had broken their way into her family home, pointing guns at her while she tried to shield her children. A week after the Shutdown began; soldiers still continue to patrol the streets, assaulting women and children. One CBO member reported her sister being beaten up by soldiers whilst trying to hitch a ride to work, a day after the President returned from Davos while one of the country's most prominent artists, Tocky Vibes was targeted by soldiers which resulted in the assault of his PREGNANT wife. Shameless.

The approach used by government and security forces to respond to the protests is unjustified, ill conceived and more retrogressive to the young woman in rural Zimbabwe as she has no means of protecting herself from the evils born in the aftermath of violence.

More so, the internet shutdown by government also played a major role in perpetuating sexual violence against young women as the blackout left them very open to all forms of abuse without any platform to expose the atrocities being committed under the cover of night-time.

What Now?

Both the citizenry and law enforcers should put a stop to the lawless violence and destruction of property. It is everyone's right to protest but in a PEACEFUL manner. Destruction of property pulls the nation back while violence will not only solve nothing but will also play directly into the law enforcement authorities' hands who, as history has shown, are quick to use excessive and deadly force in response while laying the blame on protesters.

Clarity regarding the actual values and differences between currencies so as to do away with uncertainty, which has led to, the fluctuating rates between the US Dollar and the Bond Note for starters. Urgent financial reforms are needed to ease the currency calamity. While we acknowledge that change does not come in a day nor does it come easy, the current suffering being experienced by the ordinary Zimbabwean citizen can, as noted before, be averted. The state of affairs in present day Zimbabwe is largely a result of questionable leadership at all levels rather than prolonged development, which as the Finance Minister put it, should be seen as "Austerity for Prosperity". Citizen-Centred Financial Reforms are needed.

The current woes being faced by Zimbabweans i.e. violence and fuel shortages are symptoms of much more extensive issues, signs of a broken country and citizenry. Resolving the protests and fuel prices will not heal the social fabric of Zimbabwe, progressive dialogue (National Level) among the citizenry, political parties and government (policy makers) with a view of restoring legitimacy, rule of law within and across political parties must be initiated for change to start taking shape.

The ACBOs calls for the Government of Zimbabwe to urgently withdraw the military from communities and restore rule of law. Perpetrators of violence particularly against women must be held accountable and punished accordingly. Sexual Violence is a serious matter that needs specific action to be taken and victims to come out, be heard and treated.

Conclusion

The ACBOs remains committed to improving the livelihoods of citizens in rural, farming and semi-urban communities in a non-partisan, non-political manner. Our position will always be with the citizenry particularly women in society.

In light of the recent events, the Alliance calls for government, civil society, businesses, traditional leadership authorities, the citizenry and other stakeholders must come together in progressive, development oriented dialogue that seeks to restore the social fabric of the nation while creating a clear roadmap for the country's development.

Source: Alliance of Community Based Organizations (ACBOs)

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