Army-linked killings: Where are our commissions?

January 26, 2021

Tawanda Majoni

Last week, some western embassies—UK, US, EU and the Netherlands—issued statements to commemorate the January 2019 disturbances in Harare that left some 17 people dead.

The common thread in these statements was their diplomatic condemnation of the Zimbabwean government’s failure—if not neglect—to bring to book those that were responsible for the killings, two years on.

You will remember that, then, President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced a steep fuel hike. Well, it was always going to be naïve for him to do that considering that there was a full Energy minister who must have done that. Or lower agencies like the permanent secretary, ZERA, etc. But that’s besides the matter. The fuel hikes immediately led to angry protests organised by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and particularly centred in Harare.

As has become the tradition, the government deployed security forces to quash the protests. And, as has also become the norm in Zimbabwe, close to a score of people was killed, according to independent estimates. Human rights groups said women were raped while children were caught up in the alleged State-sponsored violence.

Well, the protesters were not blame-free. They unnecessarily burnt property, barricaded roads and attacked innocent motorists and passersby. But the response by security seemed steeply unwarranted. Soldiers and cops went door-to-door hunting down protesters. Innocent people were arbitrarily rounded up and their homes were vandalised, most of the time as hapless children watched. 

Human Rights Watch thought the security forces used excessive force and those responsible must be prosecuted.

In the public eye and mind, no action was taken to bring the offenders to account, as should be the case in a democracy worth its salt. If the security forces took action against the culprits in the cantonment areas, we didn’t hear about it, so we assume nothing happened to redress the situation.

Under a year before, on August 1 2018—a day after the general elections whose early results the opposition was disputing—the same thing happened. Forces were deployed to contain protesters who felt that the incumbent Zanu PF was rigging the polls. Some six people were killed. President Emmerson Mnangagwa set up a high-profile commission of inquiry led by former South African president, Kgalema Motlanthe.

Now, the commission did some bit of fair work under the circumstances. It found out that security forces were partly responsible for the killings, but didn’t spare the blame on the opposition, which seems to have fuelled anger among its supporters even before the final results were announced. Quite notably also, the commission blamed a polarised Zimbabwe for the disturbances. It then came out with a raft of recommendations, among them healing Zimbabwe through reconciliation and prosecuting the soldiers that it accused of having killed people on August 1.

Problem is, when western embassies issue statements on the Zimbabwean situation like the ones they did last week, the whole thing becomes politicised. The government starts talking about how the embassies are ganging up against it when they coincide their statements, something like a systematic plot in its eyes. It talks about how those embassies possess no moral high ground considering what has happened in their own backyards in the past and recently.

And, out of tradition too, African embassies say nothing about those things that the western emissaries would be talking about. That comes as good fodder for the government. It routinely asks how come the African counterparts are not seeing things the way the Americans, the Dutch, the British and other Europeans are seeing things. It says things about double standards and regime change.

But it never occurs to the government to see things beyond conspiracies. The government invariably targets the messenger and blows the message out with the sputum. That’s wrong, a fallacy and retrogressive. The west may have its own cackling skeletons, but that doesn’t take away the substance in the message.

There are numerous problems that come with not taking action as in the case of the killings. To start with, the government has a double account to manage when human rights are abused. It has a moral obligation to ensure that justice is done, and it has a legal duty to do the same. Failure to address the moral dimension corrodes trust in the government. It heightens hate, fear, polarity and instability.

Do you know the reason why the Gukurahundi issue is still such a big issue today? It’s partly because the government failed to take appropriate action when thousands of people were killed in southern Zimbabwe in the early years of independence in the 80’s, on the aimless suspicion that they were part of an insurgency against the government. There are moral trappings in there. The government failed to do what was socially and morally right. It failed to take responsibility where it must have taken responsibility. And it failed to enable justice for the victims.

That is also a legal matter. There is no doubt that crimes were committed by those that hacked pregnant women to death, raped hundreds others and murdered the innocent. By failing to take action—through, perhaps some Truth and Reconciliation Commission as happened in post-independence South Africa—the government failed on its constitutional obligations. That has contributed to the current bitterness among those that were affected by Gukurahundi.

And it gets worse when the government repeats the mistakes of the past in the new millennium. You just don’t have an idea how many people are crying today because their breadwinners, relatives, friends and lovers were killed or maimed on August 1 2018 and in January 2019. People are bottling up a seething anger. Even those that were not directly affected are angry and bitter.

Of course, that’s never going to benefit the ruling Zanu PF in any way. The victims, while mostly urban-based, have relatives and social links in the rural areas who are crying out for justice. These are the people who have vowed never to vote Zanu PF in any election, under the moon or the sea. And they have downstream social links whose voting attitudes they will naturally influence, never mind that elections are rigged out of routine here.

It’s very disappointing that we have national healing and reconciliation and human rights commissions that are busy doing nothing on this matter. It’s all on record, for instance, that the government promised to act on the recommendations of the Motlanthe Commission.

It’s the duty of these commissions to step in and put pressure on the government to honour its pledges. It doesn’t have to take western embassies to do what the commissions must do as watchdogs. Or is that asking for too much?

Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT) and can be contacted on tmajoni@idt.org.zw

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