Zimbabwe’s ‘biased’ judiciary will trigger new street protests: analyst

Zimbabwe is struggling through economic and political crises, as well as a global pandemic. But ultimately, it will be the politically biased judiciary that forces people back out onto the streets, according to Harare-based political analyst Rejoice Ngwenya. 

Zimbabwe Human Rights Lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, centre, speaks to the media outside the magistrates courts in Harare, 18 August 2020.
Zimbabwe Human Rights Lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, centre, speaks to the media outside the magistrates courts in Harare, 18 August 2020. AP – Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

“This is one of the major crises. The judiciary is no longer independent,” says Ngwenya, head of public policy think tank COMALISO.

Freelance journalist Hopewell Chin’ono has been detained since 20 July on incitement to participate in public violence charges, after uncovering alleged fraud carried out by former health minister Obadiah Moyo. He was denied bail for the third time on Tuesday.

Chin’ono was arrested on the same day as opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume, who also remains in jail.

Detaining activists, journalists, writers and opposition members is part of the strategy of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government, says Ngwenya.

But it is not a mission against individuals, he says. “It’s more about using the individuals…as examples to drive citizens that if you ever think about doing something, even if you go to court and ask for bail we can never give you bail.”

Guards tried to prevent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa from entering the court on Tuesday, even though she had the proper documentation. A video shared on social media shows her demanding to be let in.

“It simply shows that even the judiciary system itself is not capable of protecting the citizen, and it’s totally under the influence of the ruling party,” he says.

Zimbabwe’s National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO) issued a statement about the lack of confidence in the judiciary, noting that “communities feel that the judiciary institutions have been used as an arm to further repress and deny citizens their constitutionally guaranteed rights”.

“That is the new normal,” says Ngwenya. “And I am sure that is going to be the trigger of the next conflict in the streets,” he adds.

Diplomatic pressure from outside

Civil society had hoped that the regional Southern African Development Community body (SADC) would intervene in the crisis, but a group of envoys were not allowed to meet opposition parties and activists during their visit two weeks ago.

NANGO “remains hopeful that the envoy will return with a refined, people-centred and inclusive strategy,” it stated.

Ngwenya believes SADC and the African Union will step up and begin to put pressure on Mnangagwa.

“That might mean this government steps off the accelerator and begins to do things normally,” he says, citing an example of magistrates on Monday telling prison officers that cells must be sanitised and prisoners given personal protective equipment to help stem the spread of Covid-19.

Although the main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was not part of the 31 July protest organisation, they have been targeted by the government. After a lull in public statements, MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa has made statements encouraging people to come out.

“He hasn’t said anything about demonstrations. But he has come out and said it’s now time for us to begin thinking about it, so that is going to make Mnangagwa more nervous,” says Ngwenya.

A number of MDC supporters went to the state courthouse on Monday to protest, a sign that people are becoming braver and returning to activism.

“There’s a lot of tectonic structural movement around Zimbabwe itself, with Botswana making the right noises, and in South Africa, members of parliament are accusing the ruling African National Congress party of being co-conspirators. Internally, the judiciary are beginning to shift a bit towards a more sympathetic situation,” he says.

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