Since coming to power in November 2017, Zimbabwe’s president Emerson Dambudzo Mnagagwa has repeatedly stated that the country is “open for business”. Zimbabwe is a country rich in mineral and human resources and Mnagagwa is hoping to join other countries on the continent that are attracting significant foreign investment. Africa is home to some of the fastest-growing economies and analysts are increasingly touting that the continent with its burgeoning youth population is a smart place to do business. Over the past thirty years, Zimbabwe has struggled to attract investment under the Mugabe regime due to high levels of corruption and consistent rule of law and human rights abuses. Unfortunately, op-eds and statements that those issues would be improved under the leadership of this “new” regime have proven to be for show only, an attempt at rebranding a system of repression and corruption that appears to remain in full force.
A perfect illustration of this continuation is the most recent case against Pastor Evan Mawarire, a democracy activist who has been a vocal advocate against corruption and bad governance in Zimbabwe. On January 16, 2019, Pastor Mawarire was arrested and charged with incitement to violence. Pastor Mawarire had joined other civil society leaders and used social media to call for citizens to protest the government’s mismanagement of the economy, including the arbitrary hiking of fuel prices. As a result, there was a three-day protest dubbed “shutdownZimbabwe.” In response to acts of violence by some protestors, the government’s response was to issue a blanket ban on access to the internet and to authorize the use of tear gas and live ammunition to disperse protesters. There have been widespread arrests and reports of intimidation against civil society leaders, political opposition members, and those suspected of sympathizing with them. In Pastor Mawarire’s case, his charge has been upgraded to “subverting a constitutional government.”
The rights to freedom of assembly and expression are the vehicles that allow citizens to support or criticize government policy. Calling for a peaceful protest is a constitutionally protected right in Zimbabwe and generally recognized as a right under international human rights law. Similarly, it is generally recognized under international law that an organizer of a protest should not be held liable for violence committed by other individuals. In this case, the Center transcribed one of the of the publicly available online videos in which Pastor Mawarire called for citizens to participate in the three-day protest.
“Fellow Citizens Pastor Evan Mawarire here, today Monday the 14th of January 2019, stay away, the three day stay away that has been called for by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, together with citizens, together with social movements, together with the people, we are calling out and we are refusing to go to work, we are not taking our children to school, we are not opening our businesses for these three days, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Monday is almost over, we have done well right across the country, people did not go to go work, and we want to thank you for being able to do this. Violence took place, there are some places where there was violence, there were some places where there was fighting and the demolishing of certain things. We don’t support that. We don’t at all support that. We must remain non-violent and peaceful. That is where our strength lies. Let’s do the one thing together. You can’t be going to work or taking your kids to school, when we have all said lets hold this government to account when we have said everybody, let us all listen, we are not going to work, children are not going to school, that’s what we do, that’s what we do, not that someone is doing this and someone else is doing that, we do different things, then this is not going to be effective. But well- done for those of you that participated, who that stayed at home. That is what is done by someone who wants to build their nation, now as we go forward, tomorrow is day 2, Tuesday, the 15th of January, 2019. I am told that the government might shut down the internet. I am hearing that the government may shutdown WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. If they do so it is actually worse off, do not go to work, do not go out, because you will not know what is going on. We want to encourage you to participate. It is peaceful. This is clamoring for our country to come right. Do not forget to keep praying for our country Zimbabwe. Don’t forget to keep pressing that things come right in this nation. God bless you, Tuesday we keep carrying on, we stay away, no work, no school for our children, no opening businesses, no violence. We remain resolute. Pastor Evan Mawarire, God Bless”.
Nowhere in this video does Pastor Mawarire indicate an intention to overthrow the government through illegal or unconstitutional means. Instead, Pastor Mawarire explicitly calls for peaceful expressions of dissent. That he is now facing a criminal trial shows how little has changed from when Mugabe’s government systematically used the criminal justice system to target its critics and members of the opposition.
As recently as 2017, Pastor Mawarire was arrested and charged with subverting a constitutional government in terms and, in the alternative, the lesser charge of incitement to public violence for exercising his constitutional right to protest matters of bad governance, corruption and human rights abuses. That case almost exactly mirrored the current case against him. The authorities alleged that Mawarire had used social media to post videos calling for a stay away with the intention to incite violence and overthrow the government. After several months of trial postponements, the High Court eventually dismissed the case on the grounds that there was no factual or legal basis for the arrest. Having analyzed transcripts of the videos and court documents, the Center’s report concluded that (1) had the various institutions in the criminal justice system objectively applied the facts and the law, Pastor Mawarire would never have been arrested or tried and (2) the arrest and charges were politically motivated. The re-arrest of pastor Mawarire based on a very similar set of facts as the 2017 case is a strong indication that President Mnangagwa’s government is not above abusing the justice system to target perceived enemies. Unfortunately for his rebranding efforts, recent studies have increasingly demonstrated the connection between Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) decision-making and the rule of law. “Rule of law” defined as where countries are governed by laws which apply equally and fairly to all, rather than with the whim of individual officials. In one study, the existence of a strong rule of law was identified as the third most important factor in selecting the location of FDI, after the ease of doing business and the existence of a stable political environment. President Mnagagwa may not care for human rights defenders and his critics, but if he does care for foreign investment, and if Zimbabwe is truly “open for business”, then the government must respect rule of law and stop the misuse of the criminal justice system to target its perceived enemies.