Zimbabwe: fuel protests dash hopes of reform and echo Mugabe’s brutality.

(Written: 18 Jan 2019)

When Robert Mugabe’s 37- year repressive regime as president of Zimbabwe ended in November 2017, the world rejoiced. It seemed as if the nation, corrupted by years of hyperinflation, food shortages and human rights abuses at the hands of government authorities was finally turning.

Much of these hopes were dashed this past week as riots and strikes erupted across the Southern African nation.

“The army has been on a rampage, beating people. They are using rape and physical abuse to instill fear. They would like to justify their actions by saying people were violent during the nationwide shutdown and that they are restoring order, but the truth is they want to quell uprisings and force people into silence.”

– Mainini Wabonana, (31), a writer living in Bulawayo.

The cause of recent protests are a 167% increase in fuel prices ordered by newly elected President Emmerson Mnangagwa, making Zimbabwe’s fuel the most expensive in the world, at $3.31 per litre.

Organized by the Zimbabwe congress of trade unions (ZCTU), protestors were met with violent opposition from security forces, with reports of people being dragged from their homes, beaten on the streets and shots of live ammunition discharged into crowds. So far 12 people are reported dead and hundreds injured, while an estimated 1000 people have been detained.

On 14 January the Internet was shut down, in what Mnangagwa said was an effort to prevent protestors from organizing violent demonstrations. Yet, many Zimbabweans see the blackout as an attempt to censor reports of human rights violations.

“While Mugabe always wanted to find means of surveillance of the Internet, he never shut it down for more than 6 hours. Mnangagwa shut the Internet for close to a week, imagine the cost to business?”

– Mlungisi Dube, a political lobbyist and journalist from Harare

The president, who ended a foreign tour early in order to deal with the situation, condemned the looting and vandalism of the protests, while still trying to subdue public dissent by critiquing the reaction from security forces, saying they were “a betrayal to the new Zimbabwe”.

His tweets were met with harsh criticism from humans rights groups who stressed that the president should be in control of his factions.

“A democratic government does not subject its citizens to state-sponsored terrorism.”

– Zimbabwe United for Democracy (poltical activist group)

Although Mnangagwa has denounced the army’s violence, for many Zimbabweans his lack of action is a true reflection of his politics.

Since the election in August 2018, the president has tried to rebrand Zanu PF, promising drastic reforms. Yet, so far little has been done to restore economic stability. Fuel prices are the highest they’ve ever been and a lack of hard currency has resulted in hour-long bank queues, while shops have been forced to close as stocks dwindle.

“The economic conditions have deteriorated under Emmerson Mnangagwa. Prices of almost all products have tripled. A local commuter trip in urban areas has increased from $0.5 to around $2,” said Dube.

Currently, the poverty-stricken nation is over $16 billion US in debt and is spending $100 million US a month on fuel imports. To finance these costs and pay off the budget deficit, the government continues to print bond notes, pushing inflation rates to the highest since 2009.

Any hope that the new leadership would bring about change has been all but shattered by recent events. Mnangagwa is likely to struggle in gather gathering financial aid from foreign backers if the violence continues.

“Truth is, no one wants to be seen openly supporting a murderous regime, especially if such a regime is not stashed with oil money,” observed Dube.

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