The violent suppression of Zimbabweans protesting rising fuel costs and food shortages by security forces has prompted debates in the UK Parliament on the growing crisis in the African state. Here we look at what has happened since the elections last summer and the UK Government’s response.

The fall of Mugabe and flawed elections

The ousting of long-time President Robert Mugabe in November 2017 drew cautiously optimistic talk of a ‘new dawn’ for the country. The announcement of elections in July 2018, a move encouraged by the UK Government, and the generally peaceful and calm way they proceeded was widely welcomed.

However, supporters of Nelson Chamisa, the presidential candidate of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), claimed the narrow victory by President Emmerson Mnangagwa was rigged – a view rejected by the Constitutional Court. Some opposition supporters continue to argue Chamisa should have been declared the victor. The EU election observer mission concluded many aspects of the elections “failed to meet international standards,” citing concerns about media bias, the performance of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the potential misuse of state funds in favour of the ruling Zanu-PF party.

But it was the violent suppression of post-election protests by state security forces that drew international condemnation and dampened hopes of a fresh start. Six people were killed in protests following the election and an independent Commission of Inquiry, led by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, later concluded the military used “unjustifiable” force against opposition protestors.

A deepening economic crisis

Zimbabwe has long struggled to restore its economy after years of misrule under Mugabe.

Since the elections, the imposition of a new 2% tax on money transfers (upon which many Zimbabweans depend because of currency issues) and extreme shortages of cash, food and fuel has exacerbated widespread anger at the government.

Thousands demonstrated in the capital in November 2018 at the country’s worsening economic situation.

And a turbulent start to 2019

The announcement of steep fuel rises on 12 January 2019 prompted the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions to call for a three-day national stay away day (in other words, a general strike). At least eight people are known to have died in clashes between protestors and security forces on the first day – 14 January.

The army “unleashed a reign of terror” and the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum documented at least 1,803 violations of human rights committed in the three-week period between 14 January and 5 February. This included at least 17 fatalities, multiple cases of rape and abduction, hundreds of cases of assaults and torture and nearly 1,000 arrests and detention. Access to social media and the internet during the protests was severely limited by the Government.

A return to the ‘dark days’?

Mugabe’s 37-year authoritarian rule was characterised by brutal crackdowns, rigged elections, land seizures and hyperinflation that left the economy in ruins. His removal from office led initially to fresh hopes for Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe commentators are now re-evaluating the hopes that marked Mugabe’s ousting. South African-based Professor David Moore said the events in January had “wiped out any trust” people might have in the current leadership, while Crisis Group’s Senior Consultant Piers Pigou suggested the optimism that accompanied the ousting of Mugabe has “evaporated”.

Several MPs expressed similar thoughts in a Westminster Hall debate on 30 January 2019.

Harriet Baldwin said the violence of 14 January was “utterly deplorable,” adding:

“The response of Zimbabwe’s security forces to protests against the petrol price rise has been disproportionate and all too reminiscent of the darkest days of the Mugabe regime. Security forces have used live ammunition, carried out widespread and indiscriminate arrests and unleashed brutal assaults on civilians, with clear disregard for the due process of law.”

While shadow Foreign Minister Liz McInnes warned: “if President Mnangagwa is to avoid gaining the same reputation as his predecessor, he must act swiftly to restore the hope that existed last summer and put an end to attacks on civilians.”

Professor Simukai Chigudu told the International Development Committee: “it was perhaps short sighted and optimistic to hope that a changing of the guard in the figure of the President would be the decisive moment in reshaping the trajectory of the country’s politics”. Professor Jocelyn Alexander wondered if Mugabe’s ousting was less representative of a great reformist urge and more an internal Zanu-PF succession struggle.

An internal power struggle?

Analysts caution against simplifying the crisis into a power struggle between the President and his Vice-President Constantine Chiwenga or between the different branches of the security forces. Some suggest reports of a Mnangagwa/Chiwenga split enables them to play “good cop, bad cop, which allows for repression domestically without tarnishing Mnangagwa’s reputation overseas.”

What is the UK Government’s response?

MPs raised their concerns in a Westminster Hall debate on 30 January and in written questions. The House of Lords debated the situation in Zimbabwe on 31 January.

The International Development Committee held a one-off evidence session with the Minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin and Zimbabwe experts on 5 February.

Harriett Baldwin recounted the action taken by the UK Government after the January violence. She said she was directly communicating the Government’s condemnation of the disproportionate use of force to the Zimbabwe Ambassador in the UK and by phone with the Foreign Minister. The Minister also issued a statement calling on the Zimbabwean Government to reinstate internet access, respect human rights and investigate all allegations of human rights abuses. She also discussed the issue with the African Union and with the South African Government during a visit in late January. Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, called on President Mnangagwa not to “turn back the clock.”

In terms of next steps, the Minister said the Zimbabwean Government must implement the  recommendations of the Motlanthe Commission (the Commission of Inquiry into the post-election violence).

In addition, the UK Government says it will not now support Zimbabwe’s application to re-join the Commonwealth, having previously suggested (in April 2018) it would “strongly support Zimbabwe’s re-entry”. Harriett Baldwin said this was because, “we do not believe that the human rights violations we are seeing from security forces in Zimbabwe are the kind of behaviour that you would need to see from a Commonwealth member.”

The UK does not channel bilateral aid through the Government of Zimbabwe. The Department for International Development plans on spending £86m in the 2019/20 financial year in the country. In 2018, the UK Government supported international and local election monitoring initiatives, including £5 million specifically to support election-related work.

Further reading

Situation in Zimbabwe (January 2019), House of Commons Library.

Zimbabwe: what next? (November 2018), House of Commons Library.

Louisa Brooke-Holland is a Senior Library Clerk in the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs and defence.

Photo: Victoria_Falls_2012_05_24_1608_(7421900004) by Harvey Barrison.  Licensed by Creative Commons 2.0/ image cropped.


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