HARARE (Reuters) – Western diplomats in Zimbabwe expressed deep concern on Friday over a deteriorating political and economic crisis, and said the government should stop using the COVID-19 pandemic to curtail freedoms.
Zimbabwe is suffering inflation over 800%, which has revived memories of the hyperinflation more than a decade ago during Robert Mugabe’s rule. Nurses are on strike and a series of arrests of political opponents have raised the alarm about a crackdown on dissent.
Heads of mission from the United States, Britain, Germany, Canada, Netherlands, Norway and Poland said in a statement that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s initial promises of uniting the country and reforming the economy when he came to power had given hope of a break with Mugabe’s rule — then proceeded to list ways in which it seems not to have.
“The heads of mission express deep concern with the current political, economic, social and health crisis that Zimbabweans are facing today,” the diplomats said.
It is relatively rare for diplomatic missions to club together and publicly criticise their host country.
A government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mnangagwa accuses the West of sponsoring the opposition to destabilise his government.
African leaders often bristle at criticism from the West, which they say can be selective – vilifying some and keeping silent on others when it suits their strategic interests.
“COVID-19 must not be used as an excuse to restrict citizens fundamental freedoms,” the statement said.
The diplomats urged “the government to address corruption and the illicit extraction of Zimbabwe’s wealth for personal gain, which continue to undermine Zimbabwe’s development.”
It has been two years since Mnangagwa won a disputed election. As economic conditions worsen, critics say his government is reverting to the authoritarian tactics used by his predecessor.
“The government also has a responsibility to investigate and prosecute those responsible for violating human rights,” the diplomats said.
Activists say the government is abducting, torturing and arresting critics, including a freelance journalist and opposition politician who have spent more than a month in detention over anti-government protests.
The government denies the charges.
Social media drive
President Mnangagwa says he is not bothered one bit by social media onslaughts.
He also accuses civic society and the opposition of staging abductions to paint a bad picture of his government.
Speaking during a virtual presentation on Covid-19 on Thursday, Mnangagwa said: “The arbitrary arrests, death, torture in the country, all that is being stated without evidence.”
In a discussion panel on Friday, titled “Unpacking Enforced Disappearances in Zimbabwe”, human rights lawyer Kennedy Masiye said there was serious mistrust in government arms hence people fear reporting abuses.
“In January 2019 [when there were fuel riots], women were raped and the government said people should report. We all know what happens when people report. They end up being charged for faking abductions,” he said.
Mnangagwa’s claim of staged abductions was met with a video exposé of the daylight drama-filled abduction of activist Tawanda Mucheiwa in Bulawayo. Leading Zimbabwean online newspaper ZimLive published a 16-minute video showing how the 22-year-old Mucheiwa was bundled into a twin cab Isuzu truck with five cars in a convoy. He was later transferred to a Ford Ranger.
Mucheiwa said he had “made peace with death”, while his abductors took turns to torture him for three days. He added: “I suffered horrific abuse at the hands of five agents over three days.”
Mucheiwa was suspected of being a ring leader in an alleged plot to burn bridges in Bulawayo on July 31 during protests.
At least 12 opposition activists were rounded up by the police, while Transform Zimbabwe leader Jacob Ngarivhume, MDC Alliance legislator Job Sikhala and journalist Hopewell Chin’ono are in a remand prison.
Arguing against Ngarivhume’s bail on Friday, state prosecutor Michael Reza said: “If Jacob Ngarivhume is freed on bail and finds out that President Mnangagwa is still the president of this country, there will be hell.”
Justice Siyabona Paul Musithu reserved judgment on Ngarivhume’s bail application until September 2.