HARARE – Zimbabwe’s President Emerson Mnangagwa is increasingly facing accusations of turning his country into an authoritarian state with laws on the cards ahead of the crucial 2023 elections to crush dissent.
The latest piece of legislation to cause jitters among Zimbabwe’s government critics is the Cyber Security and Data Protection Act that was signed into law by President Emmerson Mnangagwa on December 3.
Authorities say the new law is meant to deal with the alleged abuse of social media, but observers that it is targeted at government critics using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
The Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa Zimbabwe) said the law had “an ominously chilling effect given their far-reaching impact on the ability of civil society to work freely in Zimbabwe.”
Other proposed laws that have seen critics on President Mnangagwa’s case is the urge include the Private Voluntary Organisations (Amendment) Bill that seeks to bar civil society organisations from engaging in political work.
The government has also initiated a process to introduce amendments to the Criminal Code to criminalise citizens’ unauthorised negotiations with foreign governments.
“In essence, the laws seek to curtail and criminalise civil society’s work at an unprecedented scale and level that has not been witnessed before in the history of Zimbabwe,” Misa Zimbabwe said.
Phillan Zamchiya, a Harare-based political analyst, said President Mnangagwa was being pressured to use coercive instruments such as draconian laws from within his ruling party where a succession battle is brewing.
The 79-year-old leader is said to be under pressure from a faction linked to his deputy Constantino Chiwenga, the former army general who led the 2017 coup that toppled long-time ruler Robert Mugabe.
“Elite dis-cohesion has been widening within the ruling party making it inherently unstable,” Dr Zamchiya said.
“This has made (President) Mnangagwa rely more on the coercive apparatus of the state to avoid party disintegration and an internal implosion ahead of the 2023 general elections,” he added.
President Mnangagwa, who will be seeking a second full term in office in the 2023 polls after succeeding the late Mr Mugabe during the coup, is also facing spirited opposition from his 2018 opponent Nelson Chamisa.
Dr Zamchiya said the regime was likely to use the proposed NGO Bill to further close the democratic space and silence the growing opposition against President Mnangagwa’s rule.
“If the Bill is enacted as it is, the increasingly authoritarian state is likely to use it to ban civil society organisations from associating with any political party or even to support party policies that are in synch with their goals, vision and objectives,” Dr Zamchiya added.
“There can be state efforts to prevent civic education about politics and elections. In the past, the state has used legislation to curtail freedoms of assembly, association and expression,” he added.
Citizens in Action Southern Africa (CIASA), a regional alliance of civil society groups, said the raft of laws would lead to erosion of democracy in Zimbabwe.
“The state’s heavy-handedness has resulted in a shrinking civic space,” CIASA said in a new analysis focusing on Zimbabwe.
“Activists and civil society actors who have confronted the regime’s actions during the pandemic have been harassed, arbitrarily arrested, and, in some instances, abducted and tortured; their attempts to protest have been ruthlessly quashed.
“Civil society has been seriously crippled by stringent surveillance measures and the targeted victimization of critical voices.
“Although there has been an increased watchdog role of civic groups in Zimbabwe this year, it can be noted that there is a continuous lack of an enabling civic space for the operation of CSOs in Zimbabwe.”
CIASA singled out the proposed law targeting civil society organisations saying it was one of the biggest threats to democracy in Zimbabwe.
“The PVO Bill is retrogressive. It violates the right to freedom of association,” it said.
“The concern here is that the provision in the proposed Amendment Bill of prohibition from “political involvement” for PVOs is overly broad and vague to has a potential of being misused to target for persecution CSO leaders, pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders and PVOs that may be involved in promoting and protecting civil and political rights.
“The Bill also gives too much power to the executive to control and interfere with the work of PVOs. It increases the surveillance and monitoring of PVO’s.
“It seeks to criminalise PVO’s work and human rights defending. This will hinder the operations of PVOs which operate as a watchdog to the government.
“In a nutshell, the Private Voluntary Organisation Bill is an example of a repressive law, which increases restrictions on freedoms to express, participate, assemble and associate.”
Source: The East African