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Unrest in Zimbabwe after a sharp rise in fuel prices in recent weeks has left at least 12 people and allegations of “systemic torture” by the Army and the police.

Elections in July 2018 were widely viewed as a significant moment in Zimbabwe’s democratic transition, the first elections after Robert Mugabe’s forced resignation at the end of 2017. Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party was elected President, narrowly defeating his main rival, Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T/Alliance). The Constitutional Court rejected the opposition’s legal challenge to the result.

International election observers welcomed the peaceful election but said there was an unlevel playing field with a biased media and voters in poor areas vulnerable to manipulation and intimidation because of their dependency on food aid and state development projects. The EU election observer mission’s final report (10 October) concluded many aspects of the elections “failed to meet international standards”. The author was positive about the future however, saying “there is a thirst for democratic change in the country and the people want to see democratic dividends delivering a better life for all Zimbabweans”.

At least six people were killed in protests after the election and a Commission of Inquiry concluded the military used “unjustifiable” force against opposition protestors.

Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has deepened since last October when the imposition of a new 2% tax on money transfers and government mixed messages about local currencies led to panic-buying and extreme shortages of cash, food and fuel. In October the Financial Times (FT) reported that the resulting crisis “has negated efforts by the new administration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa to normalise the economy and repair relations with multilateral institutions”. The most recent clashes in January were prompted in part by a sharp hike in fuel prices which has made petrol and diesel in the country the most expensive in the world.

The Zimbabwe Army and Police force were accused of “systematic torture” during recent crackdowns by a Government appointed human rights group and of “excessive use of force” by the UN. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission said on 22 January its investigations found police holding accused persons “for periods exceeding 48 hours and that juveniles were being mixed with adults in holding cells against international human rights law and standards” and armed soldiers and police carried out “indiscriminate and severe beatings”. The Commission also condemned acts of vandalism, looting and barricading roads by protestors.

The UN human rights office, OHCHR, said on 18 January: “we are deeply troubled by the socio-economic crisis that is unfolding in Zimbabwe and the repression of large-scale protests in the country, following the Government’s decision to increase fuel prices… “The bottom line is that the use of live ammunition by security forces was used, excessive force was used”. President Mnangagwa has called for a national dialogue and promised to punish any security officials found to have transgressed. The President broke off a trip to Davos to deal with the continuing unrest.

Minister for Africa Harriet Baldwin issued a statement on the situation in Zimbabwe on 17 January. On 22 January, Jeremy Hunt called on President Mnangagwa not to “turn back the clock”. He added that, despite trying to do so, he had not yet spoken to his South African counterpart about the situation.

Zimbabwe has been one of the FCO’s 30 human rights priority countries during 2018.

In 2018 the UK government gave support to international and local election monitoring initiatives, including £5 million specifically to support election-related work.

UK-Zimbabwe trade and investment has been at low levels over the last decade and has been sensitive to political and economic uncertainty. In May 2018, the CDC Group – the UK government’s development finance institution – announced an investment facility, in partnership with Standard Chartered Bank, that would lend up to US$100 million to growing businesses in Zimbabwe. This was reportedly the first commercial loan by a British entity to Zimbabwe in over 20 years. In 2017, Zimbabwe was the UK’s 14th largest export market in Africa (accounting for 2% of UK exports to Africa) and 13th largest source of imports from Africa (accounting for 1% of UK imports from Africa). Globally, Zimbabwe was the UK’s 91st largest export market and 108th largest source of imports.  

Zimbabwe applied to re-join the Commonwealth in May 2018, having withdrawn from the organisation in 2003. The UK Government said in April 2018 it would “strongly support Zimbabwe’s re-entry”.

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