Zimbabwe: Reform, Not Repression, is the Answer in Zimbabwe

From left, Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marovaface charges in a Harare court in June 2020.

Washington, DC — As a group of policy practitioners, activists, former diplomats, and academics, the Zimbabwe Working Group deplores repressive actions by the Zimbabwean government that have intensified human suffering and trampled constitutional rights. We welcome initial efforts by the South African government to address this crisis. We urge the international community to press for an immediate stop to the Zimbabwean government's severe human rights abuses, for the withdrawal of the armed forces from politics, and an end to the plundering of the country's ravaged economy by the ruling ZANU-PF party and senior security officials.

The Government of Zimbabwe has a history of abducting and targeting perceived critics through judicial persecution and politicizing cases that have attracted international scrutiny, including these recent examples:

  • In July, three young female activists were abducted, tortured, and sexually abused by government security agents. Once released, they were re-arrested for revealing their ordeal to the media.
  • Days later, opposition activist Tawanda Muchehiwa was abducted in broad daylight and tortured for three days before his release.
  • In late July, prominent journalist Hopewell Chin'ono and opposition leaders Jacob Ngarivhume and Godfrey Kurauone were arrested on baseless charges of inciting public violence and held for six weeks in a maximum-security prison. Kurauone was finally acquitted of all charges and released on September 10.
  • In late August opposition political figure Lavender Chiwaya was abducted from his home and beaten to death. His corpse was dumped on a nearby road.

These high-profile cases do not include the hundreds of opposition figures, activists, and average citizens who have reported being threatened, harassed, or assaulted in recent months, sometimes under the guise of restrictions related to COVID-19, or those hiding from security forces. Unfortunately, politics is played by some in Zimbabwe's courts at the expense of justice. One of Zimbabwe's most prominent human rights defenders, Beatrice Mtetwa, was disqualified by a magistrate from representing Chin'ono and threatened with the revocation of her license.

Zimbabweans are long accustomed to abuses at the hands of the ruling party. The current violence, however, is shocking in its brutality and openness. Since the military coup that deposed former President Robert Mugabe in November 2017, active and retired senior military officers have assumed key political roles and intensified the mismanagement of Zimbabwe's failed economy for personal gain.

As repression has increased, the country's economy continues to crumble. According to the World Bank, the nation's GDP contracted by 8.1% in 2019, before the COVID-19 outbreak. It will shrink again this year by another 5-10%. Inflation currently sits at 837%. Nearly half of Zimbabwe's population has fallen into extreme poverty and half are food insecure. The Zimbabwean government, deep in arrears on domestic and foreign debt and riddled with official corruption, is virtually bankrupt.

Despite a sharp uptick in violence and repression, the people of Zimbabwe are demanding change. Across the country, ordinary citizens are taking to the streets and social media to demand an end to state violence and respect for the rule of a law. Journalists have fearlessly investigated government corruption and influence peddling, including contracts with high-priced lobbyists in Washington. Zimbabwe's Catholic Bishops have publicly decried violence against regime critics and opponents, asking "Is this the Zimbabwe we want?" Such brave efforts should be applauded and encouraged.

Zimbabweans need support and solidarity from the international community, including from their African neighbors. The ruling party must know the region and world are watching, and that #ZimbabweanLivesMatter.

  1. The Government of South Africa should continue to insist that President Ramaphosa's special envoys meet with civil society—including labor unions and religious leaders—and journalists in addition to the main opposition party, MDC-A, and include the party in any ensuing dialogue.
  2. South Africa should leverage their unique position leading the African Union and a seat on the UN Security Council to ensure that the deteriorating human rights situation, as well as the underlying causes of Zimbabwe's crisis, receive global attention and are expeditiously addressed. 
  3. The African Union should raise its voice in response to the growing crisis, not provide a whitewash for ZANU-PF, and support South Africa's efforts to engage all parties
  4. For its part, the United States should reinvigorate a strategy of pressure—including through anti-money laundering tools and additional targeted sanctions—on those most responsible for corruption and violent misrule to reform. The US must also boost humanitarian aid and support to civil society, and actively engage African partners to apply joint pressure.
  5. These steps would make clear to ZANU-PF that only an end to repression and respect for human rights can put Zimbabwe back on a track towards peace, democracy, and renewed development. Reform, not repression, is the answer in Zimbabwe.

Signed,

Mark Bellamy, former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Zimbabwe Working Group co-chair
John Campbell, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations and former US Ambassador to Nigeria
Johnnie Carson, former Assistant Secretary for African Affairs; former Ambassador to Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe
Desirée Cormier Smith, Open Society-United States
Chester Crocker, former Assistant Secretary for African Affairs and Strategic Studies Professor at Georgetown University
Judd Devermont, former National Security Council Director
Larry Garber, Independent Consultant and former Co-Director of the 2018 IRI/NDI Zimbabwe International Election Observer Mission
Michelle Gavin, Senior Fellow for Africa, Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana
Todd Moss, Ph.D., former Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Dept of State
Emily Renard, Open Society Foundations, Zimbabwe Working Group Co-Chair
Witney Schneidman, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
Jeffrey Smith, Founding Director, Vanguard Africa
Jon Temin, Freedom House, Zimbabwe Working Group Co-Chair
Bruce Wharton, former U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe
Nicole Wilett, former National Security Council Director

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