Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa promised to "flush out" political opponents on Tuesday, as activist groups said that scores of campaigners and protesters have been arrested in an expansive clampdown over the past week. Analysts say repression is amplifying in Zimbabwe, nearly three years after Mnangagwa helped oust his former mentor Robert Mugabe.
In an unexpected speech to the nation on August 4, Mnangagwa declared that his government is facing "many hurdles and attacks" and that "the bad apples who have attempted to divide our people and to weaken our systems will be flushed out".
"We will overcome attempts at destabilisation of our society by a few rogue Zimbabweans acting in league with foreign detractors," the president continued.
The same day, activist group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said it was representing at least 20 people arrested since the government thwarted protests planned for the previous Friday - including Fadzayi Mahere, spokesperson for the main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, and Booker Prize-longlisted novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga, who were accused of inciting public violence.
Covid-19 'used as a pretext'
Mahere took to Facebook Live to film police wearing helmets and bearing truncheons coming to arrest her at a restaurant on Monday. Dangarembga, who is currently on bail, told Reuters on Tuesday that "it's like the people of Zimbabwe are in a chokehold". On Monday, the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter trended on Twitter across the globe.
"Public repression is indeed intensifying, and it is being applied as a first resort," Stephen Chan, a Zimbabwe expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told FRANCE 24.
Last week Mnangagwa's government sent soldiers and police to shut down the capital Harare, thereby blocking the protests planned by Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of the small opposition party Transform Zimbabwe - citing Covid-19 as the reason for the lockdown.
"The Zimbabwean government has used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to strengthen its grip on power and curtail the freedom of expression of the opposition and civil society movements," Virginie Roiron, a Zimbabwe specialist at Sciences Po Strasbourg University, told FRANCE 24.
The demonstrations were intended to decry corruption and mismanagement of the country's imploding economy - as well as marking two years since the disputed election that cemented Mnangagwa's grip on power.
Ahead of the suppressed protests, Ngarivhume was arrested with inciting violence on July 20, along with Hopewell Chin'ono - a prominent journalist and documentary filmmaker who in June helped uncover the "Covidgate" scandal, in which the health minister was sacked and arrested for over alleged corruption in a $60 million deal to procure supplies for the fight against the coronavirus.
A further financial scandal was uncovered in early July, when it was revealed that the Zimbabwean public funds were used to buy luxury cars such as Range Rovers for senior civil servants - costing millions of dollars collectively.
'Meltdown in health services'
Covidgate emerged amid recurrent health workers' strikes over low pay and a lack of equipment; public hospitals are in such a poor condition that "unborn children and mothers are dying daily", the Zimbabwe Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists told Reuters.
"In the time of Covid, the steady meltdown in health services has now become not just a bad dream but a nightmare, and stands in stark contrast to the wealth of the oligarchs who, it seems, are prepared to steal even from the embattled health sector," Chan said.
The broader economic outlook is similarly worrying. Inflation is running at 737 percent - the second highest in the world, behind Venezuela - while the UN's World Food Programme projects that 60 percent of Zimbabweans will suffer from food insecurity by the end of the year.
Mnangagwa introduced a reform package with IMF support in May 2019, including a new currency - seeking to turn a new page after economic crises racked Zimbabwe during the last two decades under Mugabe. But in March 2020 - by which point the new Zimbabwean dollar had lost most of its value - the IMF declared that the country was facing an "economic and humanitarian crisis" and that Mnangagwa's programme was "off-track" because of "missteps" in its implementation.
"The worsening repression is linked to the macroeconomic instability the country is going through," said Marisa Lourenco, a southern Africa analyst at consultancy firm Control Risks. "The government keeps changing its monetary policy, which is not good for the economy, as it doesn't address the high inflation rate and limited currency reserves" she told FRANCE 24.
"There is a shortage of goods going on, in part because of a drought affecting food supply, but also because the currency shortages mean the government doesn't have the money to buy what it needs," Lourenco continued. "So you have people who are starving and people whose livelihoods are now under further threat because of economic stoppages under Covid-19. Meanwhile the government is unable to stimulate the economy - it's getting no funding support and limited private sector investment because it now has such a poor relationship with the international community."
'A lot of fear'
Some of those foreign observers proclaimed their optimism when Mnangagwa allies in the military ended Mugabe's 37-year rule and installed him as boss in the November 2017 coup - such as Britain's then international development secretary Rory Stewart, who rapidly flew to Harare, expressing "real hope that Zimbabwe can be set on a different, more democratic and more prosperous path". This was despite Mnangagwa's longstanding reputation as Mugabe's ruthless enforcer.
"People chose not to recognise a coup for what it was, even though military coups like that have always been conservative; they are not about reform," Miles Tendi, an associate professor of at Oxford University, told FRANCE 24. "Now we see a very restricted political space for the opposition, and a lot of fear," he continued.
"Zimbabweans are strong enough to overthrow this government," added Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy and international development at Birmingham University, speaking to FRANCE 24.
"But making sure that everyone understands this, and getting them to mobilise at the same time, is extremely hard in the face of a brutal government that is showing no respect for the rule of law," he concluded.