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The Zimbabwean leadership engaged in a renewed violent crackdown on the political opposition in 2007, including hundreds of arrests and scores of beatings by security forces and progovernment gangs. A series of bans on political gatherings and ad hoc curfews further restricted political and civil liberties during the year, and the authorities continued to repress independent media. Nevertheless, negotiations between the government and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led to an apparent consensus on political reforms and plans for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2008, although there was scant evidence that the polls would be either free or fair. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s economic crisis worsened, with inflation reaching almost 8,000 percent by November. Public health and development was threatened further by a breakdown in basic services.
In 1965, a white-minority regime in what was then Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence from Britain. A guerrilla war led by black nationalist groups, as well as sanctions and diplomatic pressure from Britain and the United States, contributed to the end of white-minority rule in 1979 and the recognition of an independent Zimbabwe in 1980. Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), first brought to power in relatively democratic elections, have ruled the country since then.
Zimbabwe was relatively stable in its first years of independence, but from 1983 to 1987, the Shona-dominated government violently suppressed opposition among the Ndebele minority, and between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians were killed by government forces. Widespread political unrest in the 1990s led to the creation in 1999 of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), an alliance between trade unions and other civil society groups. In 2000, the MDC helped defeat a referendum on a draft constitution that aimed to expand executive power. Parliamentary elections in June 2000 were deemed by observers to be fundamentally flawed prior to balloting. Candidates and supporters of the MDC faced violence and intimidation; voter registration, identification procedures, and tabulation of results were highly irregular; and ZANU-PF used substantial state resources, including state-run media, to aid its campaign.
After months of political violence aimed at MDC supporters, Mugabe defeated MDC candidate and trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai in a deeply flawed presidential election in 2002. Mass protests and strikes called by Tsvangirai in 2003 were crushed by security forces. Parliamentary elections in March 2005 were similarly marked by political violence and fraudulent electoral processes. As in previous elections, ZANU-PF used government food stocks as a political weapon, denying supplies to some MDC supporters and promising it to other citizens in exchange for votes. In addition, only African monitors believed to be sympathetic to ZANU-PF were allowed to observe the elections, which resulted in a sweeping victory for the ruling party. With 78 elected and 30 appointed seats, it gained a two-thirds legislative majority and the ability to amend the constitution. The MDC won only 41 of 120 elected seats.
The government subsequently enacted a far-reaching Constitutional Amendment Bill. Among other provisions, the bill abolished freehold property titles by nationalizing all land, denied landowners any legal recourse regarding expropriated land, brought all schools under state control, and empowered the government to seize the passports and travel documents of people deemed a threat to national interests. Furthermore, the bill reintroduced an upper legislative house, the Senate, elections for which were held in November 2005. ZANU-PF secured 59 out of 66 seats; the MDC, deeply split over whether to participate in the elections, fielded just 26 candidates and won 7 seats. Less than 20 percent of voters turned out for the balloting.
Also in 2005, the government implemented a politically tinged slum-clearance effort known as Operation Murambatsvina (OM), which means “drive out the trash” in the Shona language. Beginning in Harare, the operation soon spread to almost every urban area and rural business center in Zimbabwe, resulting in the destruction of thousands of informal businesses and dwellings as well as thousands of arrests. Initially moved into transit camps near cities, many displaced residents were forced to return to the rural areas designated on their national identity cards. According to the United Nations, approximately 700,000 people were made homeless by the operation, and another 2.4 million were affected directly or indirectly. While the government defended OM as a necessary effort to restore law and order to the country’s cities, many analysts maintain that it was designed to impose control over urban areas that had proven to be MDC strongholds and sources of antigovernment agitation.
Victims of OM have seen little improvement in basic living conditions. The government has actively prevented civic groups and aid agencies—as well as the United Nations—from gaining access to the displaced. Upon initiating the campaign, government officials had announced ambitious plans—dubbed Operation Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle, or Better Life—to build new housing projects for the urban poor in place of the destroyed dwellings. However, according to numerous human rights organizations, these projects remained mostly incomplete, and failed to benefit people displaced by OM. Amnesty International reported that “almost none of the victims of Operation Murambatsvina have benefited from the rebuilding, with only 3,325 houses constructed—compared to the 92,460 homes destroyed.” The group also noted that most constructed houses were incomplete, and that many houses and plots had been allocated by political affiliation or bribery.
Meanwhile, the government’s seizures of white-owned farmland, which began in 2000, precipitated the collapse of Zimbabwe’s agriculture-based economy. Much of the seized land went to ZANU-PF officials, Mugabe loyalists, and war veterans without a farming background. The country’s gross domestic product has fallen more than 40 percent since the land reform began, and the economy has been plagued by extreme hyperinflation: the inflation rate neared 8,000 percent in November 2007. In recent years, the government has attempted a number of interventions, mostly currency devaluations and price controls, to stave off economic disaster. In 2006, government attempts to enforce a 1,000 percent devaluation led to the detention of over 2,000 people and the seizure of more than Z$20 billion (US$200,000) by police officers, soldiers, and members of ZANU-PF’s youth militias. In June 2007, the government ordered firms to cut prices of basic goods by half, resulting in massive shortages, panicked buying, and the arrest of thousands of businesspeople for noncompliance; in August, the policy was suspended. The central bank announced the introduction of a new devalued currency in October. Zimbabwe’s economic crisis is the primary reason behind the emigration of as many as three million Zimbabweans in recent years. Unemployment in 2007 was estimated at 80 percent.
The worsening economic and political conditions led to a spate of antigovernment protests in 2007, most of which were violently dispersed by security forces amid a general crackdown on the political opposition. In February, police used roadblocks, tear gas, and water cannons to disperse an MDC rally in Harare; citing the disorderly conduct of the oppositionists, the government then implemented a three-month ban on political gatherings. The following month, police violently broke up a large prayer meeting organized by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign in Harare. One MDC leader was shot dead, and over 50 people were arrested. Many of the detainees were badly beaten on site or in police custody, including Tsvangirai and Lovemore Madhuku, leader of the National Constitutional Assembly, a reformist umbrella group. After unidentified assailants firebombed several police stations around the country, police raided MDC headquarters, arrested at least 20 people, beat several of them, and charged nine with attempted murder. According to Human Rights Watch, police also attacked residents of alleged opposition strongholds in Harare, Bulawayo, and Mutare. The crackdown continued in May when police violently stopped a demonstration by the Law Society of Zimbabwe, beating several lawyers. Later that month, police arrested some 200 MDC members in connection with petrol bombings in Harare; all were released without charge, though several were beaten. Authorities extended the ban on political gatherings.
Despite the political violence, negotiations between ZANU-PF and the MDC—brokered by South African president Thabo Mbeki—yielded an agreement in September. The MDC reportedly agreed to vote for a constitutional amendment that moves parliamentary elections to 2008 and allows Mugabe to present a chosen successor for approval by Parliament. In exchange, the amendment removes appointed seats from the legislature, increases the overall number of parliamentary seats, and redraws constituency boundaries. The government also agreed to ensure the independence of the electoral commission, revamp the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and allow Zimbabweans living abroad to vote. Mugabe, who was planning to run for reelection in 2008, signed the amendment into law in November. In December, Parliament began debating changes to the POSA.
The collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy has resulted in large-scale food shortages. In August 2006, the World Food Programme estimated that 3.3 million Zimbabweans would require additional food aid in 2007. Food, humanitarian, and educational aid are often distributed or withheld to serve political ends. Basic utilities such as electricity and water are deteriorating, threatening health as well as economic activity. Health services are also strained by a high HIV prevalence rate; about 20 percent of Zimbabweans are infected with the virus. The continuing political and social crisis in Zimbabwe has highlighted the unwillingness of the African Union and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to act against even its most abusive members.
Zimbabwe is not an electoral democracy. Recent presidential and legislative elections have been marred by political violence and intimidation, a discriminatory electoral framework, biased media coverage, and the unscrupulous use of state resources. President Robert Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF party have dominated the political landscape since independence in 1980, overseeing at least 17 amendments to the constitution that have expanded presidential power. Mugabe has on several occasions invoked the Presidential Powers Act, which enables him to bypass normal governmental review and oversight procedures. Presidential elections are held every six years. Despite his vows to retire, Mugabe has been nominated by ZANU-PF to run in the 2008 presidential election. In November 2007, Mugabe signed into law a constitutional amendment allowing the president to select a successor if he does not complete his term. The measure also moved parliamentary elections to 2008.
Since the reconstitution of the Senate in 2005, Zimbabwe has had a bicameral legislature. The Senate includes 50 directly elected members, 6 presidential appointees, and 10 traditional chiefs. The House of Assembly comprises 120 elected seats and 30 seats filled by various Mugabe appointees; elections are held every five years. ZANU-PF loyalists make up 72 percent of the House of Assembly and over 89 percent of the Senate. The 2007 constitutional amendment removes appointed seats from the legislature, increases the number of seats overall, and redraws constituency boundaries.
Despite splits within the party concerning participation in the 2005 Senate elections, the MDC represents the most significant opposition force in Zimbabwe. Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the anti-Senate faction, and Arthur Mutambara, head of the pro-Senate group, joined forces to stage antigovernment rallies in 2007. Both factions also agreed to the constitutional accord with ZANU-PF.
Corruption is rampant throughout the country, including at the highest levels of government. Patronage is crucial to ZANU-PF’s grip on power: the party owns a wide range of businesses, and party loyalists have been allocated many of the properties seized from white farmers. The collapse in public-service delivery has made corruption a ubiquitous part of dealing with local officials. Anticorruption prosecutions are almost exclusively motivated by political vendettas; the November 2007 arrest of Attorney General Sobusa Gula-Ndebele on corruption-related charges was tied directly to an ongoing power struggle within ZANU-PF. Reports of extensive corruption and nepotism have contributed to the stark decline in public and investor confidence in Zimbabwe’s economy. Zimbabwe was ranked 150 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression and of the press is severely restricted in Zimbabwe. The country’s draconian legal framework includes the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Official Secrets Act, the POSA, and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. In general, these laws restrict who may work as a journalist, require journalists to register with the state, greatly restrict what journalists may publish, and mandate harsh penalties—including long prisons sentences—for violators. Journalists are routinely subjected to verbal intimidation, physical attacks, arrest and detention, and financial pressure by the police and supporters of the ruling party. Several journalists were arrested and beaten while covering the government’s crackdown on the MDC in 2007. In April, a cameraman for state television, Edward Chikomba, was abducted, beaten, and murdered, allegedly for leaking footage of Tsvangirai’s beating. Foreign journalists are rarely granted visas, and local correspondents for foreign publications have been refused accreditation or threatened with lawsuits and deportation.
The government dominates the print and broadcast media. Coverage in state-controlled dailies such as the Chronicle and the Herald consists of favorable portrayals of Mugabe and ZANU-PF and attacks on government critics. The Daily News, the country’s only independent daily, was shuttered in 2003 for not adhering to the AIPPA. The state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) runs all broadcast media, which are seen as mouthpieces of the regime. The cost of satellite services that provide international news programming place them out of reach for most Zimbabweans. In 2005, the government began jamming the shortwave radio signals of stations perceived as hostile, including Voice of the People, the London-based SW Radio Africa, and the Voice of America. In April 2007, the Iranian government agreed to help fund a new state radio station intended to counter Western broadcasts. Mugabe enacted the Interception of Communications Bill in August, empowering the state to monitor telephonic and electronic communication with sophisticated surveillance technologies acquired from China.
Freedom of religion is generally respected, although church attendance is becoming increasingly politicized. Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has propelled a recent boom in attendance, and church groups such as the Solidarity Peace Trust and the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance have been at the forefront of opposition to the Mugabe government. Other church groups, such as the Zimbabwe Council of Churches and the Ecumenical Peace Initiative, are widely perceived as progovernment. In September 2007, vocal government critic Bishop Pius Ncube resigned his post after evidence of an adulterous affair surfaced in the media; Ncube claims the scandal was manufactured by the government.
Academic freedom is limited. All schools are under state control, and education aid is often distributed based on parents’ political loyalties. Security forces and ZANU-PF thugs harass dissident university students, who have been arrested or expelled for protesting against government policy. In 2007, several protests by university students resulted in arrests and beatings; police closed the University of Zimbabwe in July. In September, the police defied a High Court ruling to reopen student residences that were kept shut after classes resumed.
The nongovernmental sector is small but active. However, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), particularly those dealing with human rights issues, have faced increasing legal restrictions and extralegal harassment. In 2004, Parliament passed the Non-Governmental Organizations Act, which increased scrutiny of groups that “promote and protect human rights” and explicitly prohibited such groups from receiving foreign funding. Public demonstrations and protests are severely restricted under the 2002 POSA, which requires police permission to hold public meetings and demonstrations. Such meetings are often deemed illegal and broken up, and participants are subject to arbitrary arrest by security forces (including intelligence officers) and attacks by ZANU-PF militias. The POSA also allows police to impose arbitrary curfews and forbids criticism of the president. In addition to the crackdown on political opposition rallies, police forces blocked or broke up several citizen protests in 2007. Hundreds of protesters were arrested during a large march organized by Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) in rural Matabeleland to protest economic conditions.
The right to collective labor action is limited under the Labor Relations Act, which allows the government to veto collective bargaining agreements that it deems harmful to the economy. Strikes are allowed except in “essential” industries. Because the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) has led resistance to Mugabe’s rule, it has become a particular target for repression. In April 2007, a nationwide strike called by ZCTU in response to the economic crisis was poorly observed due to workers’ precarious economic conditions and intimidation by security forces.
While some courts have struck down or disputed government actions, increasing pressure by the regime has substantially eroded the judiciary’s capacity to act independently. The accused are often denied access to counsel and a fair, timely trial. The government has repeatedly refused to enforce court orders and has replaced senior judges or pressured them to resign by stating that it could not guarantee their security; judges have been subject to extensive physical harassment. The judicial system has been burdened by the vacancy of nearly 60 magistrate posts, which has caused a backlog of some 60,000 cases.
In general, security and military forces are accountable to the government but abuse citizens with impunity. Security forces often ignore basic rights regarding detention, searches, and seizures. The government has taken no clear action to halt the rising incidence of torture and mistreatment of suspects held by police or security services. War veterans and ZANU-PF militias—including the youth militia—operate as de facto enforcers of government policies and have committed human rights abuses such as assault, torture, rape, extralegal evictions, and extralegal executions without fear of punishment. Security forces have taken on increased roles in crop collection, food distribution, and enforcement of government monetary policy. In May 2007, the government began a large recruitment drive intended to double the size of the police force before national elections in 2008. The police as well as the military are heavily politicized, as evidenced in a special report released by the International Bar Association in November 2007.
Prison conditions are harsh and life-threatening. Severe overcrowding and a major shortage of funds has contributed to a rise in HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis infections among inmates, food shortages, and the deterioration of already poor health and sanitation facilities. Deaths in prisons are often caused by disease or beatings by guards. Many prisoners rely on family members for food. Pretrial detention is a major problem, with some inmates being held for over 10 years without trial. Women and juveniles are housed separately from men, and pretrial detainees are generally held in separate, common cells.
The minority Ndebele ethnic group continues to suffer political and economic discrimination, and Ndebele areas are often targeted by security forces as opposition strongholds. Restrictive citizenship laws discriminate against Zimbabweans with origins in neighboring African countries.
The state has extensive control over travel and residence. The government has seized the passports of prominent government critics, and foreign critics are routinely expelled or prevented from entering the country. In March 2007, the police banned several MDC activists seeking medical treatment abroad from leaving the country.
Property rights are not respected in Zimbabwe. Operation Murambatsvina featured the eviction of hundreds of thousands of urban dwellers from their homes and the destruction of thousands of residential and commercial structures, many of which had been approved by the government. Fewer than 400 white-owned farms remain out of the 4,500 that existed when land invasions started in 2000. A February deadline for remaining white farmers to leave their land was delayed in 2007. Still, any avenues of legal recourse for expelled farmers have been closed. In September, Parliament passed a bill mandating that 51 percent of shares in all—including foreign—companies operating in Zimbabwe must be owned by black Zimbabweans.
Women enjoy extensive legal protections, but de facto societal discrimination and domestic violence persist. Women serve as ministers in national and local governments and hold seats in Parliament. Joyce Mujuru is second vice president of Zimbabwe and a possible successor to Mugabe. The World Health Organization has reported that Zimbabwean women’s life expectancy of 34 years is the world’s shortest. Sexual abuse is widespread, including the use of rape as a political weapon. A recent upsurge in gender-based violence spurred renewed calls for the enactment of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill, which has lingered in Parliament for eight years. In July 2007, Amnesty International reported that women oppositionists faced particular brutality by security forces. The prevalence of customary laws in rural areas undermines women’s civil rights and access to education. Homosexuality, decried as un-African by Mugabe, is illegal in Zimbabwe.