Freedom in the World
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President Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) have dominated Zimbabwean politics since independence in 1980, in part by carrying out severe and often violent crackdowns against the political opposition, critical media, and other dissenters. A fragile power-sharing arrangement helped the country recover somewhat in the years after a 2008 political and economic crisis. However, in recent years the ZANU-PF has been fragmenting as politicians jockey for position to succeed the aging Mugabe. Meanwhile, the country has seen burgeoning protests over issues including rampant corruption and the deteriorating economy.
- Protest actions initiated by hashtag campaigns, such as #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka, began in June, including a July 6 strike that paralyzed much of the country. Police violently dispersed many demonstrations, and hundreds of protesters remained in detention at year’s end.
- Factional fighting within the ZANU-PF over who will succeed 92-year-old president Mugabe intensified during the year, and in July, the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA), previously a key ally of Mugabe, publicly withdrew its support.
- A cash crisis had dire effects on the economy, as public-sector workers saw their salaries repeatedly delayed, and banks imposed limits on withdrawals.
- In November, the introduction of deeply unpopular bond notes raised concerns about a return to the hyperinflation experienced about a decade earlier.
In 2016, factional wars within the ruling ZANU-PF party intensified, contributing to a further crisis of governance within Zimbabwe. Politicians—including President Mugabe’s wife Grace Mugabe and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa—jockeyed for position amid widespread speculation about the state of Mugabe’s health. In a surprising turn, leaders of the ZNLWVA—who had backed Mugabe since the struggle for independence—withdrew their support in July, calling Mugabe “dictatorial” and blaming him for strife across the country. Although the opposition remains weak and divided, at year’s end it came together to demand electoral reforms ahead of the 2018 elections. In December, ZANU-PF elected Mugabe as its presidential candidate for 2018.
Meanwhile, a cash crisis paralyzed the Zimbabwean economy. The crisis left the government unable to pay civil servants—who make up a significant portion of the country’s workforce—for long periods of time, and forced banks to place strict limits on cash withdrawals.
The effects of the economic crisis and other grievances prompted a wave of protests led by social movements including This Flag and Tajamuka. In response to the protests, authorities violently disbursed gatherings and arrested hundreds of people, many of whom remained in detention at year’s end. Zimbabwean activists reported that state security forces carried out threats, abductions, and torture of social-movement leaders.
In an attempt to fix the economy, the government introduced so-called bond notes in November. The unpopular move was widely regarded as a means of reintroducing the Zimbabwean dollar, which was abandoned in 2009 after the inflation rate had reached 13 billion percent the previous year. In the meantime, rampant corruption—including an unaccounted-for $15 billion in diamond revenue—as well as repercussions of land-reform policies and an unclear indigenization policy, continued to hamper economic recovery.
Zimbabwe has a bicameral legislature. In the lower chamber, the 270-seat National Assembly, 210 members are elected through a first-past-the-post system with one member per constituency, and 60 female members are elected by proportional representation. The 80-seat Senate includes 6 members from each of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces who are elected through proportional representation, and 20 appointed members, including 18 traditional leaders and 2 members representing people with disabilities. Members in both houses serve five-year terms.
The 2013 constitution limited the president to two five-year terms, removed the presidential power to veto legislation and dismiss Parliament, and devolved some powers to the provinces. The new constitution also empowered the president’s political party, not Parliament, to select a presidential successor in the case of the president’s retirement or death while in office. In 2014, amendments were made to the ruling ZANU-PF party’s constitution that changed the procedures under which members of the party’s executive, including its president, were to be appointed. The amendments, which were reportedly approved through methods falling outside proper procedures, left the country without a clear succession path should the president die or retire. Despite being 92 years old and in visibly fragile health, ZANU-PF in December 2016 endorsed Mugabe as its candidate for the 2018 presidential election.
Although far less violent than the 2008 elections, the 2013 presidential and parliamentary elections were marred by serious irregularities. Mugabe won the presidency with 61 percent of the vote; his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T), took 34 percent. ZANU-PF also captured 197 seats in the National Assembly, compared with 70 for the MDC-T. The Zimbabwe Electoral Coalition (ZEC) reported widespread electoral violations, but monitors from the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) deemed the irregularities not severe enough to have affected the result.
In September 2016, by-elections were held in the constituency of Norton. Former ZANU-PF member Temba Mliswa, who ran as an independent, defeated ZANU-PF’s candidate. Allegations of violence and intimidation by ZANU-PF members against Mliswa’s supporters were reported; election monitors also reported that ZANU-PF had attempted to buy votes by giving away food and land.
The 2012 Electoral Amendment Act reconstituted the ZEC with new commissioners nominated by all political parties. However, its independence from ZANU-PF has been questioned, and opposition figures object that its chairwoman also serves as head of the Judicial Service Commission. The 2012 act also mandated, among other provisions, that the voter rolls be kept in both printed and electronic form by the ZEC and be provided to the public upon request. Legal loopholes that permit the printing of extra ballots, unfair media coverage, and interference of police officers in voter choice remain unrevised.
In 2016, the MDC-T continued to boycott by-elections until electoral reforms were put in place. In August, 18 political parties that had united in 2015 to form the National Election Reform Agenda (NERA) held a massive demonstration, demanding electoral reforms before the 2018 elections. Many have expressed doubt that reforms will be achieved, and in September 2016, Jonathan Moyo, minister of higher and tertiary education, stated that implementing them would constitute “reforming ourselves out of power.”
In August 2016, the ZEC confirmed that, due to lack of funds, it was registering voters only in constituencies where by-elections were being held, despite the 2004 Electoral Act mandating that voter registration be an ongoing process. Opposition leaders dismissed the excuse, and allege that disfranchising voters is one of the ways that ZANU-PF is already rigging the 2018 elections.
ZANU-PF has dominated politics since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, however intense infighting over who will succeed Mugabe has led to the formation of splinter groups within and outside the party. Joice Mujuru, who was replaced as vice president in 2014 and expelled from ZANU-PF, emerged as the leader of a breakaway faction, People First, during 2015; many of her supporters have been purged from political posts since her expulsion. Current vice president Mnangagwa heads another faction that draws significant support from the military. A relatively new third faction, known as G40, is comprised of younger party members who oppose liberal reforms. President Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, has also emerged as a political leader and draws support from G40.
The main opposition party, the MDC, has also split into multiple factions but the MDC-T remains the largest opposition group. In August 2016, Tsvangirai and Mujuru held a well-attended joint rally that prompted talk of a formal alliance. In December, numerous opposition parties held talks to discuss forming a united coalition against the ZANU-PF.
The ruling party uses state institutions as well as violence and intimidation to punish opposition politicians, their supporters, and critical political activists. In October 2016, MDC-T lawmakers reportedly received threatening text messages warning them not to disrupt Mugabe’s annual speech to Parliament. In 2016, the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) repeatedly accused ZANU-PF of coercing traditional chiefs into intimidating opposition supporters on its behalf. In September, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission released a report alleging that the government uses food aid politically, giving it to supporters and denying it to areas where support for opposition parties is strong.
Zimbabwe’s ethnic Shona majority dominates ZANU-PF and the MDC-T, and in the past, members of the Ndebele minority have complained of political marginalization.
The civilian leadership has only partial electoral legitimacy, and the commanders of the highly partisan military, police, and intelligence agencies continue to play a central role in government decision making. The Central Intelligence Office (CIO) remains closely tied to the presidency and free from any substantial regulation by the legislature or civilian bureaucracy.
Due to the succession crisis and the state of the economy, much everyday government activity has been brought to a standstill. At the beginning of 2016, civil servants had not yet been given their November 2015 bonuses; the payments, as well as regular salaries, were repeatedly delayed throughout 2016. Claims of pay discrimination surfaced, with the government allegedly paying members of the military first and teachers last. The economic crisis has also resulted in reduced public services, with the situation exacerbated by the worst drought in 35 years.
Government effectiveness has been undermined by the use of appointments for political patronage and nepotism. In October 2016, there was public outcry over the appointment of Mugabe’s son-in-law as the chief operating officer of Air Zimbabwe, the ailing national airline. The president regularly reshuffles the cabinet, and in 2015 increased the number of ministers to more than 72, each of whom receives large salaries and allowances, vehicles, housing, and special staff.
Corruption is endemic. In September 2016, a local firm released an audit of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority revealing that over US$20 million had been lost through corrupt activities within the agency. In February 2016, Mugabe admitted that $US15 billion worth of diamond revenue was unaccounted for.
The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) has little independent investigative or enforcement capacity. In July 2016, the ZACC, originally housed under the Ministry of Home Affairs, was moved to the Office of the President and Cabinet. The ZACC has reportedly fallen prey to the ongoing factionalism within ZANU-PF, with different groups attempting to persuade it to prosecute members of rival factions. The body’s efforts to arrest Moyo on charges of illegal diversion of government funds were reportedly halted by Mugabe in October 2016, though he was eventually arrested the following month, with a case against him ongoing at year’s end.
Although the constitution protects freedoms of the media and expression, the country’s repressive legal framework—including the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (CLCRA)—has yet to be reformed.
In February 2016, the Constitutional Court declared that Section 96 of the CLCRA, which allowed authorities to impose prison sentences of up to two years for defamation, was unconstitutional. However, throughout 2016 police continued to arrest and charge individuals who criticized Mugabe under CLCRA provisions prohibiting insult or so-called nuisance crimes. In July, the ZNLWVA information secretary was charged under the insult law for disseminating a statement that was sharply critical of the president, but charges against him and several other ZNLWVA members involved in the case were effectively dismissed in November. In April, a man was charged with criminal nuisance for sharing an audio message on WhatsApp that alluded to Mugabe’s poor health and waning government duties.
The state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) continues to dominate broadcast media. The government also controls the two main daily newspapers, though there are a number of independent print outlets. In July 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that all Zimbabweans with a device capable of receiving radio or television signals must pay license fees to the ZBC. Commercial radio licenses issued to date have generally gone to state-controlled companies or individuals with close links to the ruling party.
Internet access and usage have expanded rapidly in recent years despite frequent power outages. In April, Mugabe warned citizens that the government would begin regulating access to different websites, adding that China’s government had taken similar actions in the name of national security.
While internet access is rarely blocked or filtered, in July 2016 communications networks were disrupted amid escalating protests. Also in July, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe warned citizens against “the gross irresponsible use of social media and telecommunication services,” threatening to disconnect and prosecute anyone sharing material considered subversive. In August, the country’s army commander characterized the use of social media to organize protests against the government as “cyber warfare,” and threatened a response. That month, a draft Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill containing provisions that allowed police to intercept private communications and seize electronic devices began circulating, though it had not been passed by year’s end.
Freedom of religion is generally respected in Zimbabwe.
Political pressure on teachers and academics has eased in recent years, though the state still responds with force to student protests. Prominent academics rank among the government’s most vociferous critics, and some are allowed to operate with little interference. Mugabe serves as the chancellor of all eight state-run universities, and the Ministry of Higher Education supervises education policy at universities. Nevertheless, there is respect for academic freedom in many government institutions.
Zimbabweans enjoy some freedom and openness in private discussion, but official monitoring of public gatherings, prosecution of offenses like insulting the president, and the threat of political violence serve as deterrents to unfettered speech.
Freedom of assembly and association are guaranteed in the constitution but are subject to restrictions. In 2016, citizens increasingly engaged in public protests at which they decried economic difficulties and poor governance, and demanded electoral reforms. Prominent protest movements included This Flag and Tajamuka, both of which heavily employed social media to spread their messages and organize protest actions, including a July strike that shut down normal activities across large parts of the country. In response, the police and army violently dispersed numerous protests, drawing sharp rebukes from various governments and civil society organizations. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested and charged with criminal offenses under the CLCRA, and at the end of 2016, over 100 people who had protested against the government were awaiting trial on trumped-up charges, according to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. Three activists were reportedly abducted and tortured by state security agents in the fall.
The POSA is routinely used by the police to deny protest permits. In October 2016, the Harare High Court upheld a 30-day ban on protests. While many opposition and grassroots protests were dispersed, large ZANU-PF rallies were permitted to take place.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active and generally professional. They remain subject to legal restrictions under the POSA, the CLCRA, and the Private Voluntary Organisations Act, despite the rights laid out in the constitution. In September 2016, two employees of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, an alliance of civil society organizations, received anonymous telephone threats for arranging mass protests, with some observers alleging that the threats originated with the CIO.
The Labour Act allows the government to veto collective-bargaining agreements that it deems harmful to the economy. Strikes are allowed except in “essential” industries. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union in June, following a strike that began in March by unpaid National Railways of Zimbabwe employees, submitted a complaint to the International Labor Organization requesting it mediate between the government and the workers.
The executive branch has exerted considerable pressure on the courts or sought to circumvent their authority over the years, but a recent series of rulings appears to reflect increasing judicial independence. In August 2016, the High Court ruled that a major opposition rally could go forward after police in Harare had tried to suppress it. ( Police violently dispersed the protest anyway, in violation of the order.) In July, a judge dismissed criminal charges against Pastor Evan Mawarire, leader of the This Flag movement, who according to his lawyer had been accused of trying to overthrow the government. In another decision celebrated by rights activists, a High Court judge in September suspended a two-week ban on demonstrations. Days ahead of the decision, Mugabe had claimed that judges who ruled to permit demonstrations over police objections endangered the public peace, and the remarks were widely interpreted as an attempt to intimidate members of the judiciary.
Toward the year’s end, a court battle emerged concerning the procedure by which the chief justice is appointed. Observers said the battle, which involved a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the president to appoint the chief justice alone rather than selecting from candidates screened by the Judicial Service Committee, reflected factional wrangling within ZANU-PF. Separately, in July, Attorney General Johannes Tomana was suspended on abuse-of-office allegations. While the charges may be founded, they are also widely viewed as part of ZANU-PF’s factional quarrels.
The constitution gives arrested suspects the right to contact relatives, advisers, and visitors; to be informed of their rights; and to be released after 48 hours unless a court orders them to remain detained. However, these rights are often violated in practice. Security forces abuse citizens, frequently ignoring basic rights regarding detention, searches, and seizures. During the fall, reports emerged that security forces had abducted and tortured protesters.
Lengthy pretrial detention remains a problem, and despite some improvements in recent years, prison conditions are harsh and sometimes life-threatening. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and food shortages have contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other illnesses among inmates.
Discrimination on the basis of a broad range of characteristics is prohibited under the 2013 constitution. However, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is not expressly prohibited. Sex between men is a criminal offense and can be punished with a fine and up to one year in prison. Mugabe has been vocal in his opposition to same-sex sexual relations, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) groups have been subject to regular harassment by security forces.
Passport offices, which in the past were characterized by long queues and instances of bribery, have since become more efficient. However, high passport fees continue to inhibit legal travel abroad. Badly underfunded immigration and border authorities lack the capacity to efficiently enforce travel restrictions, and border posts have been described as overcrowded and staffed by corrupt officials.
Property rights are not respected. In January 2016, the government demolished the homes of over 100 families who resided on land intended for the expansion of Harare International Airport. In response to the residents’ subsequent lawsuit, the High Court ruled the following month that the demolitions, which took place without notice and without a court order, were illegal.
In rural areas, the nationalization of land has left both commercial farmers and smallholders with limited security of tenure. Farmers without a title to their land have little collateral to use for bank loans. In September 2016, the ZANU-PF youth secretary called for the seizure of land from the few remaining white farmers. In February, around 90 black farmers who had benefited from previous land reform programs received 90-day eviction notices from the government. While the orders did not provide any explanation, some observers suggested that their land may be used to reward youths and war veterans who had assisted in ousting former party executives. In August, the ZNLWVA secretary general’s farm was occupied by apparent ZANU-PF supporters, following his participation in a statement critical of Mugabe; a court later ordered them to leave. Also in August, it was reported that the government might charge rent to farmers who had settled on land that was confiscated during the nationalization process. Failure to pay could result in repossession.
The 2007 Indigenization and Economic Empowerment Act stipulates that 51 percent of the shares in all large companies operating in Zimbabwe must be owned by black Zimbabweans, and the government has indicated that it will close firms that do not comply. The law has discouraged foreign investment.
In November 2016, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe introduced “bond notes,” a new currency pegged to the U.S. dollar, into circulation. The issuance occurred before a case could be heard in the High Court on the legality to do so. The unpopular move was widely regarded as a means of reintroducing the Zimbabwean dollar, which was abandoned in 2009 after the inflation rate had reached 13 billion percent the previous year.
In March 2016, the government banned import of certain products in an attempt to reduce the country’s import bill and protect local businesses. The move provoked protests by informal cross-border traders, whose livelihoods would be affected.
Women enjoy extensive legal protections, and serve as ministers and deputies in the national and local governments. However, societal discrimination and domestic violence persist, and sexual abuse is widespread. In 2016, there were reports of female lawmakers being assaulted while carrying out government business. In October 2016, MDC-T legislator Jessie Majome was attacked by suspected ZANU-PF youths while attending a public hearing on electoral reforms. Also that month, police officers allegedly sexually molested two female MDC-T legislators on the floor of the National Assembly while the police attempted to remove another MDC-T legislator. A ZANU-PF legislator, Munyaradzi Kereke, was convicted of rape in July in a private lawsuit; though the crime occurred six years earlier, the attorney general’s office had declined to prosecute him.
In January 2016, the Constitutional Court banned child marriage and set the minimum age of marriage for both men and women at 18. This nullified part of the Marriage Act, which had set the minimum age of marriage for women at 16, compared to 18 for men.
Zimbabwean women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor, particularly in border areas. In 2016, 150 Zimbabwean women that had been trafficked to the Middle East were brought home, with the assistance of civil society and the Zimbabwe government. However, around 60 women still remain.