By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
On a late morning in mid-August, two U.S. Senate aides were sitting at an outdoor cafe in Harare, Zimbabwe, with a civil society activist, when someone approached them with a warning. They were being tailed and filmed by another man in the cafe, whom the spotter suspected was a member of the Zimbabwean government’s security services.
The two aides work for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and were on an official visit to the southern African country organized in concert with the U.S. Embassy to meet with human rights advocates and other civil society leaders and hear firsthand accounts of Zimbabwe’s deteriorating political and human rights situation under President Emmerson Mnangagwa. (They requested meetings with the Zimbabwean government, most of which were declined.)
After departing their meeting with the activist, they got into a U.S. Embassy vehicle, one of a fleet of clearly marked American government cars with diplomatic plates driven by an embassy staffer. They were driving away when several cars slotted into the road in front of them, to the side, and behind them. Suddenly, their car was boxed in.
At one point, according to one official briefed on the matter, they tried to call the U.S. Embassy for help, but their phones all lost reception, apparently simultaneously. They were on their own. After a tense standoff, as the phalanx of cars crawled along the road, the driver of the U.S. Embassy car saw an opening and swerved onto a side road to escape the tail. They rushed back to the U.S. Embassy compound before the pursuing cars could intercept them. From there, the U.S. Embassy worked to quickly ferry the two Senate staffers out of the country without further incident.
The ordeal, described to Foreign Policy by four current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter, stunned U.S. diplomats and left them questioning what would have happened to the two Senate aides had the embassy vehicle not been able to make its escape. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak on the matter publicly.
The officials, who suspected Zimbabwean security services orchestrated the entire incident, said it underscored the increasingly brazen tactics of Mnangagwa’s government to suppress and intimidate political opponents and civil society activists as he strengthens his grip on power ahead of national elections next year. However, all of the officials cautioned that they couldn’t say with certainty who followed the staffers and chased the U.S. Embassy car.
The incident incensed U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who sent a letter to President Joe Biden informing him of the harassment and car chase his staffers experienced. In the letter, he urged Biden to step up U.S. attention on the “dire” repressive political atmosphere in Zimbabwe and boost support for the country’s increasingly embattled civil society organizations and pro-democracy activists.
“This blatant aggression towards congressional staff, one of whom—as the Zimbabweans surely know served as a senior advisor to you for many years when you were Chairman and Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee—was meant to intimidate the staff themselves, and to send a message to the United States: our support of Zimbabweans working to defend democracy is unwelcome by those who hold power,” Menendez wrote in his letter to Biden dated Sept. 12, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy. Menendez did not name the two staffers in his letter.
“Such outrageous behavior highlights the Zimbabwean regime’s reckless disregard for international norms. If American officials are deliberately targeted, you can well imagine the violence that will be directed to Zimbabweans who dare to criticize the government.”
Menendez in his letter pushed Biden to bring up the political situation in Zimbabwe with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during their scheduled meeting at the White House on Friday. Menendez’s office did not offer additional comment on the matter.