Countries worldwide that suffer or risk violent conflicts face a new hazard amid the COVID-19 pandemic: governments’ use of the disease as a pretext to curtail democratic freedoms and punish opposition. As COVID has spread across Africa, Zimbabwe is emerging as one of the countries most vulnerable to the disease—and most illustrative of its threat to peace and democratization efforts on the continent. Two and a half years after a military coup installed President Emmerson Mnangagwa, his government has used the health crisis to arrest members of the opposition and journalists, and divert humanitarian aid to ruling party supporters.

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, at his office in Harare in 2019, dismisses assertions by Zimbabwean and international human rights organizations that he has sustained the state’s historic pattern of abuses. (Zinyange Auntony/The New York Times)
Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, at his office in Harare in 2019, dismisses assertions by Zimbabwean and international human rights organizations that he has sustained the state’s historic pattern of abuses. (Zinyange Auntony/The New York Times)

In the pandemic’s first six months, Africa has remained the continent least infected—partly due to governments’ quick implementation of public health protections. But experts from the Africa Centers for Disease Control now warn that the region “could become the next epicenter” of the disease—and governments are struggling to contain the accelerating shift to “community spread” of the virus.

In Zimbabwe, COVID has deepened political tensions and an economic crisis under the 31-month-old rule of President Mnangagwa. As in other countries where masses of citizens are marginalized into informal, subsistence economies most commonly exemplified by self-employed street vendors, the government shutdown of commerce and transport, ordered to curb COVID’s spread, immediately confronted millions of Zimbabweans with the threat of hunger. The government has recently rolled back some of the restrictions to help ease the impacts on the struggling economy. About 60 percent of Zimbabwe’s economy is informal, and a similar percentage of its people are “unable to obtain enough food to meet basic needs due to hyperinflation,” according to Hilal Elver, a U.N. investigator on global food security. “The people of Zimbabwe are slowly getting to a point of suffering a man-made starvation,” Elver concluded in November, before the COVID outbreak. Drought and shortages of water and soap deepen risks of COVID in rural communities.

Old Repressions, Renewed Amid COVID

Since coming to power in a 2017 military coup and a disputed 2018 election, Mnangagwa has sustained the authoritarian state and violent repression overseen for 37 years by his predecessor, Robert Mugabe. Even before COVID, Zimbabwean civic activists and local and international human rights monitors documented a pattern of renewed repression.

  • During nonviolent public protests and strikes in January 2019 against fuel price hikes, police and troops shot and killed protesters and then marauded through residential areas, assaulting hundreds, raping or sexually assaulting women and arresting more than 1,000 people, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum. The independent Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission documented "systematic torture” by troops and police. The government also shut down the internet and social media for a week.
  • Throughout 2019,  Zimbabwe suffered a spike in abductions, beatings and torture of government critics by organized, unidentified squads of gunmen, according to the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a coalition of church and civic human rights advocates. Human Rights Watch reported confirming 50 such cases by September in which those targeted included human rights activists, a comedian and a prominent doctor. In this pattern of abductions and violence, numerous reports cite the gunmen justifying their attacks because of their victims’ statements criticizing the government. They note that authorities have shown no signs of seriously investigating or prosecuting the attackers.
  • This year, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights documented dozens of arrests of people over anti-government protests in February. That month, authorities in Mashonaland East province arrested seven women who had submitted a petition to local officials protesting poor education standards. They charged the women with having gathered to promote public violence.

As President Mnangagwa has ordered shutdowns of business and other activity to suppress the spread of COVID, human rights monitors and civic activists say he and his ruling party, ZANU-PF, also are using the health crisis to undermine democratic freedoms and target government opponents. In May, three women of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change—one a member of parliament—disappeared for two days before being found, injured from beatings, on a rural roadside. They described having been abducted, beaten and sexually assaulted by armed men after having joined a protest against the hunger that has spread under the COVID lockdown. U.S. and European Union officials called for investigations.

Days later, police arrested two Zimbabwean journalists who visited the hospital where the injured women were being treated. The Paris-based press freedom organization Reporters Sans Frontiéres counted further journalists arrested by Zimbabwean authorities under COVID restrictions—the largest total of press freedom violations amid a wave of them that the group noted across sub-Saharan Africa.

Also in May, Amnesty International criticized Mnangagwa’s government, as well as  those in Angola and South Africa, for denying humanitarian food aid  to those who do not support the ruling party—a deadly form of political exclusion amid Zimbabweans’ widespread hunger and risk of starvation. Zimbabwe human rights groups expressed grave concern at Mnangagwa’s use  of troops and police to enforce COVID restrictions. In fulfillment of the roles that the military and police historically have played in Zimbabwe—the protection of state power—their personnel have harassed citizens and threatened communities, appearing motivated by a desire to instill fear rather than to protect citizens from the potentially deadly virus.

Civil society groups also are concerned at a bill in Parliament that would amend 30 sections of Zimbabwe’s constitution to give Mnangagwa what the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum called “medieval monarch-type” powers and weaken democratic checks and balances. The government has been pressing the amendments forward by holding public hearings despite COVID and the shutdown of other public activities—an inconsistency protested by labor unions and citizens’ groups.

Zimbabwe is among authoritarian governments worldwide—in places as disparate as China, Jordan, the Philippines, Poland and Hungary—cited for using the COVID crisis to consolidate their power. Across the Americas, governments have been accused of ramping up repression to enforce pandemic-related public health measures. Activists have also had to face a rise in digital authoritarianism, as governments have used the internet to monitor and censor information flow and surveilled their online activities.

Civil Society’s Resilience

The current acts of repression risk further eruptions of violence, as in Zimbabwe’s past. Before the bloodshed of January 2019, violence flared over the disputed results of the 2018 elections that let Mnangagwa keep power. Despite a record voter turnout, international observers determined, political parties had not been treated equally and citizens could not vote freely. Election violence a decade earlier, in 2008 presidential elections, targeted the main opposition party and killed, injured or displaced thousands of people.  

A potential counter to the cycles of violence and repression under the Mugabe and Mnangagwa regimes is Zimbabweans’ persistence in building a nonviolent movement and campaigning for transparency, accountability and democratic governance. Interviews and discussions with more than 50 movement actors, representatives of civil society organizations, and Zimbabwean and international analysts in the country, reflected in a January 2020 USIP report, suggested ways that policymakers—in the United States, other countries and in international organizations—can best support activists and civic groups in achieving such goals.

Supporters of nonviolent action and a strengthened democracy for Zimbabwe should sustain their engagement with both the government and civil society throughout Zimbabwe’s electoral cycles, the report notes. The frequent pattern in which international assistance is focused mainly on election seasons ignores that the building of democracy is not restricted to voting in elections. Above all, the report suggests, international supporters of democracy should provide support based on the stated needs of grassroots actors. It also should find ways to work with nontraditional parts of civil society and pursue locally grounded strategies. Those principles are vital in, and beyond, Zimbabwe. And the heightened stakes for sustaining democracy under the pressures of COVID make them only more important now.

Miranda Rivers is a senior program assistant at USIP; Precious Ndlovu is a human rights activist based in Zimbabwe.

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