Covid-19 and the State of Democracy in Zimbabwe.

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Covid-19 and the State of Democracy in Zimbabwe.

By Aleck Murimigwa

The advent of Covid-19 in December of 2019 has impacted mankind the world over in many ways. The immediate effect of it is the loss of life across races and frontiers.

As of 16 May 2021, about 3.37 million deaths have been recorded out of 163 million recorded Covid-19 cases globally. It follows that Covid-19 is a pandemic.

Covid-19 has not only claimed lives, it has also drastically forced a shift in the day-to-day lives of people across the world through such things as lockdowns.

Economic activities and certain freedoms were suspended in a bid to save lives by curbing the spread of the virus. It became mandatory in all countries for people to wear face masks every time they appear in public spaces and to keep social distancing among other health guidelines prescribed by the World Health Organisation.

 However, all the measures instituted to curb the spread of the virus came with a price. They impacted democracy, directly and indirectly, one way or the other.

As a member of the global village, Zimbabwe was not an exception from the effects felt by others. According to the Ministry of Health and Child Care, the virus has claimed over 1580 lives from the 38 000 recorded cases.

 Authorities, like in many other countries, introduced a range of embargoes, in a bid, as they argued, to curb the spread of the pandemic. What effects did these measures have on democracy in Zimbabwe?

Larry Diamond (2004) describes democracy as a system of government with four key elements:

i) A system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections

ii) Active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life

iii) Protection of the human rights of all citizens; and

iv) A rule of law in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

Using Diamond’s opinion on democracy, I will explain the state of democracy in Zimbabwe since the advent of Covid-19 (March 2020).

Zimbabwean introduced its measures to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 at a time when the country was already battling to mend its image before the eyes of the international community.

Reports of human rights violations year in, year out, earned the country renewed sanctions with some new authorities added to the list.

The European Union (EU) and the United States of America (USA) slapped Zimbabwe with sanctions at the turn of the new millennium due to human rights violations.  Since then, human rights abuses have continued earning the country more sanctions.

Covid-19, in the Zimbabwean context, came at a time when democracy itself was already fragile.

Covid-19 became a pretext for the Zimbabwean government to trample more in the dust the rights of the citizenry. Rights to

freedom of movement, assembly, food, water, among others were denied.

I will start with the efforts by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government to decimate the opposition, MDC Alliance. Political analysts and commentators have repeatedly pointed out that Zimbabwean authorities employ lawfare to wade off political opponents from contestation.

Legislators and councilors from the opposition were recalled from Parliament on the back of a controversial  Supreme Court ruling on MDC leadership wrangle. Barely a day after the court ruling, Zimbabwe introduced a strict Covid-19 induced lockdown. It banned political activities including elections indefinitely.

 A system of choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections tops Diamond’s observations on what democracy ought to be. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) recently resumed some of its activities but insisted elections cannot be done due to Covid-19.

It leaves the citizenry in some constituencies without representatives. It then defeats the logic of free and fair elections as a soul of democracy. 

A fortnight ago, Zanu-PF conducted primary elections in Mwenezi, Masvingo province in which about 7000 party faithful participated. As it stands, the government only allowed a maximum of 50 people at any social gathering.

The opposition, particularly the MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa is not allowed to hold its primary elections or conduct political activities.

The Zanu-PF Mwenezi primary elections are a clear case of the selective application of the law. In a democracy, Diamond observes that law should be applied equally to all citizens. This has not been the case in Zimbabwe.

Harare West legislator Joana Mamombe and MDC Alliance deputy youth chairperson Cecilia Chimbiri spent more than two months locked up at Chikurubi Maximum Prison for addressing the media at Harare Magistrates Court.

Zanu PF Bindura North legislator Kenneth Musanhi addressed a rally in January in his constituency but was not arrested. Many other Zanu-PF officials are conducting political activities in their respective constituencies freely.

Independent Norton legislator Temba Mliswa was arrested for addressing the media at his home in Borrowdale a couple of months ago. These are clear cases of the selective application of the law.

In addition, scores of political activists including students have been frequenting courts and prisons respectively. They are accused of violating Covid-19 health guidelines and inciting public violence. The arrests have been a classic case of failure by the government to protect people’s liberties. It has become a norm that Magistrates Courts deny bail to arrested political activists.

 Active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life have been suspended too.

Freedom of movement in Zimbabwe has been a challenge since the beginning of Covid-19. One Paul Munakopa was shot and killed by police officers in Bulawayo in May 2020.

Munakopa was in the company of his girlfriend, Tracy Mufudzi when he was gunned down by police who were driving in an unmarked vehicle. The police said they mistakenly identified Munakopa’s vehicle as that of a suspect. This was and remains unconvincing.

Another Bulawayo man Levison Ncube, 25, died from “subarachnoid hemorrhage and head trauma” a couple of days due to injuries sustained from police assault. The police assaulted him for violating Covid-19 lockdown rules.

There are many other cases of assault of the citizens by state security agents on the grounds that they violated Covid-19 induced lockdown regulations.

While the government has of late relaxed lockdown regulations, the right to freedom of movement remains curtailed. Ordinary foxes who rely on public transport particularly those living in urban areas continues to face hurdles.

The available government, initially subsidized ZUPCO transport facility, has failed to cater for thousands of people who need to commute on daily basis, especially in Harare. The government banned kombis from commuting the public giving the ZUPCO a monopoly in the transport sector.

On 3 May 2021, the world commemorated World Press Freedom Day. It happened at a time when the rights of journalists have been violated.

The right to access critical information relating to Covid-19 has been violated. Recently a report by the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) indicated that the Government is keeping critical information on Covid-19 close to its chest.

Health experts have too pointed fingers at the Government on the hesitance of taking Covid-19 vaccines by citizens. They said the Government is not giving out adequate information on the jabs it is procuring outside. As a result, slightly above half a million people have been vaccinated in Zimbabwe three months after the inoculation exercise began.

While democracy itself is a difficult proposition and that there is no universal definition to it, many scholars contend that free press is at the heart of democracy. The advent of Covid-19 saw the rights of the press being thrown away through the window.

 Journalists have been at the mess of security agents. Scores of journalists were assaulted, arrested, and intimidated. Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe recorded over 100 cases of press freedom violations since Covid-19 started. Award-winning journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested more than twice for exposing corruption.

It took the intervention of the High Court for state law enforcement agents to appreciate the media as a key stakeholder in the Covid-19 fight. Before the High Court order journalists found movement from point A to point B very difficult.

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