COVID-19 and the Future of Democracy in Zimbabwe14 min read.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has shown why pro-democracy movements in Zimbabwe should disentangle themselves from the fallacious promise of neoliberal democracy and the magic of the market. Democratic politics should be about delivering public goods and services, including quality healthcare, not about servicing markets.
The world has been teetering on the precipice ever since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan city in Hubei province, China. Since then, the disease has been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), leading to countries adopting drastic measures to combat it.
In a majority of countries, state security institutions have been activated and deployed to help enforce the lockdown, and the stay-at-home and social distancing policies. Inasmuch as these strategies are practical measures to combat COVID-19, they have inadvertently created opportunities for authoritarianism. Jared Rodriguez aptly surmises the situation: “The pandemic creates extraordinary circumstances for restricting civil liberties, free speech and human rights while intensifying the possibilities of an emerging authoritarianism.”
In countries like Zimbabwe, which are rife with authoritarianism, it seems the pandemic has provided a perfect opportunity to checkmate the ever nagging opposition and civic movement. The strategies adopted so far by the government point only to one goal: achieving unimpeded imperial rule for the incumbent.
The responses of the pro-democracy movement have been largely premised on a neoliberal framework to politics and state-craft despite the existing material and social conditions pointing otherwise. The pro-democracy movement has mainly pursued constitutional reformism and electoralism in an economy that is predominantly agrarian, informal, and dominated by natural resource extraction and the service industry. This brings into question these strategies, and more importantly, the future of democratic politics in Zimbabwe.
Democracy under threat
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed democracy under one of its biggest threats. Authoritarian strategies have become the de facto norm adopted by governments. Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, makes an important observation on the three pillars that may make any country manage to respond effectively to Covid-19: “In fact, this is an acid test for every single country’s quality of healthcare, standard of governance and social capital. If any one of the pillars in the tripod is weak, it will be exposed, and exposed quite unmercifully by this epidemic.”
It is important to note that governance is one of the key pillars for the state’s capacity to respond effectively to COVID-19; a failure within that realm may mean disaster in the end. In this case, governance speaks to how public power and policy are deployed and used within the state. This poses questions on how public officials and institutions are operating and guiding their conduct in seeking to enforce laws meant to contain and suppress the spread of the virus. There have been widespread reports of heavy-handed approaches that have seen the rise of what Jared Rodriguez calls the “…support for pedagogical apparatuses of spectacularised violence, fear mongering and state terror…”, thus “…creating fertile grounds for the cultivation and inclusion of authoritarian politics…”.
China instituted a total lockdown of the country that has been reported to have been accompanied by the erosion of people’s freedoms in the name of fighting the virus. Human Rights Watch has accused China of resorting to “automated tyranny”. Reason Foundation’s Shika Dalmia argues that beneath the veneer of China’s so-called impressive response to combat the virus, the Chinese authorities used a variety of tools to infringe on the privacy of people, including pharmacies to spy and collect data on customers, social platforms AllPay and WeChat to install tracking software on their users, and China Telecom colour-coded phones to screen people. It also paid close to 300,000 volunteers to spy on residents and report to the police, and rewarded neighbours to spy on each other. The police barged into homes to forcibly take away suspected COVID-19 patients.
China instituted a total lockdown of the country that has been reported to have been accompanied by the erosion of people’s freedoms in the name of fighting the virus. Human Rights Watch has accused China of resorting to “automated tyranny”.
These tactics mirror heavy surveillance of citizens in Nazi Germany. The reports of China building a hospital in 10 days whilst democracies such as the United States of America, United Kingdom and India dithered on responses inadvertently led to a discussion on which form of governance is better. The net effect has been lethal propaganda that created a fallacy of an efficient system, especially after reports of China building the hospital. Western media and scholars fell for this propaganda charm offensive that projected the Chinese system as efficient and superior while Western democracies were seen as slow and sloppy. For instance, Yale professor, Nicholas Christakis, ran a thread on Twitter praising China’s collectivist culture and authoritarian government as unprecedented and impressive.
Yet, the global media and leading scholars have been silent on how democracies like Taiwan, Iceland, South Korea and Germany have managed to successfully and effectively respond to combating COVID-19. In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa undertook widespread consultations with a wide variety of key stakeholders, and cobbled a national consensus with the opposition, civil society, churches and business leaders. In addition, the country adopted an open and transparent information management system and tapped into expert scientists for advice. By the 9th 0f April, South Africa was reported to have increased its testing capacity of 5,000/day by six-fold after adding 60 more mobile testing units to the existing 7, combined with 180 testing sites and 320 testing units across the country.
Similarly, according to Don Reisinger, “Germany has had remarkably few Covid-19 deaths, which experts attribute partly to its high number of hospital beds and ICU beds”. Despite having a high numbers of people infected by the coronavirus, Germany has managed to lower its fatality rate, which in March 22 stood at 0.3 per cent. The death rate as of 29 March 2020 was much lower than that of China, Italy and many other countries around the world. Germany is stated to have “8.1 hospital beds per 1,000 people and 6.1 ICU beds per 1 000 people”, something highly remarkable in comparison to “Italy has 3.2 hospital beds per 1 000 and 2.6 ICU beds per 1 000”. It is these positive stories from democracies that have not gained prominence in comparison to the ones from the Benevolent Brutal Dragon’s propaganda.
Africa’s emerging trend of authoritarianism
Images of security forces beating and torturing civilians to enforce COVID-19 lockdowns in Africa have been dominating social media. Trevor Nnabugu of Ventures Africa, an online news site, provides a chronicle of human rights abuses in Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. In these cases, security forces are accused of using indiscriminate and disproportionate force, including murder, rape, beatings and public humiliation, in a bid to enforce the lockdowns. The rising cases of police brutality in Africa, while not unique to the region, signify the tendency of our security apparatus to revert to the default logic of violence.
In Zambia, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) took no time to suspend the licence of Prime TV on the 9th of April 2020 on the basis that it was unpatriotic and threatening public safety after the media outlet refused to air the government’s COVID-19 commercials for free. Before that, the government had banned its officials from conducting business with and appearing on Prime TV broadcasts. It also barred Prime TV’s journalists from attending official events. In addition, on 27th March 2020, Top Star Communication Limited Company, a partly state-owned television signal carrier, informed Prime TV that it would stop carrying its broadcast in a bid to blackout the television as punishment for its consistent criticism of the ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF). In all these acts, the hand of the state is quite visible in attempting to close an independent media that has always been critical of government.
Images of security forces beating and torturing civilians to enforce COVID-19 lockdowns in Africa have been dominating social media. Trevor Nnabugu of Ventures Africa, an online news site, provides a chronicle of human rights abuses in Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria.
A leading African Women’s Rights Activist, Nancy Kachingwe, quipped on Twitter: “Dear African leaders, a pandemic isn’t a war, it’s a public health crisis made worse by your failures to build strong public health systems you’ve not been attacked, you’ve been found wanting batons & beatings solve nothing…”
The tweet surmises the logic and attitude of African leaders, where every solution is perceived as a nail and that needs a hammer.
Dr David Ndii, in an interview with The Elephant, warned us extensively:
We have to guard, organise and push back against what I see as an opportunistic clawback of civil liberties in the days of disease emergencies, as well as human rights violations. And I have already talked about default police brutality, which is already the default of many of our states with a legacy of repressive regimes. So that is something which I think particularly organised civil society has to be very vigilant because you can see some of these people cynically even using this to suspend civil liberties. They have been trying to do it, even before coronavirus. So now they have this perfect excuse to do what they want.
Nowhere does this warning ring more true than in Africa, and more specifically in Zimbabwe. The beleaguered Harare regime has wasted no time to use the opportunity availed by COVID-19 to usurp legislative authority at the expense of promoting executive authority in a patently unconstitutional manner and to decimate the opposition and civil society.
Zimbabwe, the unrepentant child
On Friday, the 27th of March 2020, President Mnangagwa announced a 21-day national lockdown to be implemented starting from midnight of 30th March 2020. This move came after some dithering by the Harare authorities, which were heavily criticised for failing to prepare for an impending medical disaster.
The announcement of the lockdown was positively received and praised across the political divide, a rare moment in Zimbabwe’s political history. However, the positive vibe and bipartisan consensus, and the possibility of an elite cohesion towards cobbling a national response, was quickly lost. The Ministry of Information Secretary, Nick Mangwana, through his TL @nickmangwana forewarned what was to come: “The total lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 will start at midnight with the Government passionately calling on citizens to comply with the directive and instructions from security personnel deployed to enforce the law.”
Already the government was psyching itself into a combative mood. The Presidential Spokesperson, George Charamba, through his TL @jamwanda2, threatened the unleashing of the army in the low-income suburbs: “MaFACE angu ekumaGhetto, kindly note that pranks and drinking sprees in streets this evening will come to grief!!!! THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN!!!!!!! Loosely translated: My friends from the low income suburbs, kindly note that pranks and drinking in streets this evening will come to grief!!!! THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN!!!!!!!
Indeed, soldiers were deployed and immediately the cries of agony echoed all over the country, as videos of residents being either beaten or tortured by security forces started to circulate on social media.
The announcement of the lockdown was positively received and praised across the political divide, a rare moment in Zimbabwe’s political history. However, the positive vibe and bipartisan consensus, and the possibility of an elite cohesion towards cobbling a national response, was quickly lost.
In Karoi, Masvondo, a local resident, had to petition the court after some members of the Zimbabwe National Army allegedly barged into her homestead and assaulted everyone within her household under the guise of enforcing a lockdown. In Mutare, police burned agricultural produce headed for the markets, insisting that everyone should observe the stay-at-home instruction. Harare’s popular vegetable market, Mbare Musika had saddening stories of farmers and vegetable vendors, whose produce was getting rotten because of lack of access to the market.
The government had to recant some of its policy directives after there were huge outcries, even from its traditional support bases. The planning and implementation of the lockdown was not well thought-out, hence the disastrous results from the onset. As of 16th April, the Media Institute in Southern Africa-Zimbabwe (MISA-Zim) had recorded several cases of downstream vendors whose rights had been violated under the pretext of enforcing the lockdown.
Most journalists have been facing harassment over accreditation, despite the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) having acknowledged to have failed to approve the registration of journalists for the year 2020. Pursuant to that, the ZMC issued a communique that journalists’ 2019 accreditation had been automatically renewed and could be used for the year 2020. Despite this policy position of the authorities, the security services have been acting on the contrary and continue to harass journalists. Even the pro-government newspaper, the Herald, had to break with tradition and pen an editorial comment on the 13th of April 2020 rebuking and questioning the motives of the police. The Zimbabwean High Court also went further by barring the police’s heavy handedness.
The judiciary in Zimbabwe has also come under heavy criticism during the pandemic after issuing a judgment that has fundamentally reconfigured the opposition in Zimbabwe. Earlier on, the judiciary had issued a notice that it was suspending court processes and would only attend to urgent cases related to the implementation of lockdown measures. Bail hearings were suspended and even new cases were not going to be dealt with until after the end of the lockdown.
Interestingly, Dr. Thokozani Khupe, one of the claimants to the heir of the Movement for Democratic Change, tweeted on the 31st of March that the Supreme Court will deliver judgment on the long standing matter on the legitimate heir to the throne after the death of founding leader Morgan Tsvangirayi on the 14th of February 2018. What followed became an intriguing and choreographed series of events that cast further doubts on the independence of the judiciary.
Dr Alex Magaisa of Kent University in the United Kingdom gives a nuanced analysis of this drama in his Big Saturday Read blog. He summed it as compromised and selective. State security institutions have been heavily compromised and made partisan, and this has been very evident during their operations during COVID-19. Ever since the Supreme Court judgment, dramatic and bizarre events have followed, where the main opposition MDC Alliance has lost its elected representatives (Members of Parliament and Councillors) and party offices to a party that it contested against in the 2018 elections. A significant number of lawyers associated with the MDC Alliance have also been arrested and charged with spurious allegations. Three ladies from the youth assembly who dared to protest were abducted from police custody and sexually abused, and also later arrested for violating lockdown rules despite the government failing to come out clean on the abductors.
Blessed Mhlanga, one of Zimbabwe’s top journalists, through his TL @bbmhlanga on the 16th of April 2020, tweeted the case of Senator Tofa from the leading opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance who was barred by the police from donating humanitarian aid to the needy. In the same tweet, Mhlanga further claimed that the police went further to instruct millers not sell Honourable Tofa any mealie-meal. Earlier, on the 8th of April 2020, Honourable Caston Matewu of Marondera Central constituency claimed that the police in Marondera had refused his donation to fight COVID-19 on political grounds. Such stories are not surprising in Zimbabwe, where state security institutions have been compromised by the ruling party.
A close reading of these cases and many others show that the security services are using the logic of force to deal with purely civilian issues. A tweet by @matigary, a pro-government online troll, surmises the thinking in government: “SA military SANDF is kicking ass & bashing heads. I am inviting Dewa Mavhinga & his nywe nywe (talk too much) human rights crowd to test SANDF by defying the lockdown.”
This celebration of spectacularised violence within the security services’ response to public health issues, which are largely civilian, are very worrying and also indicate that Zimbabwe is still an unrepentant child, despite claims of a “New Dispensation” after the fall of Robert Mugabe.
An alert but limited pro-democracy movement
Zimbabwe has had an alert and very lively pro-democracy movement that has managed to successfully call out the government and ruling party whenever they fall out of line. This pro-democracy movement has been composed of the loose alliance of the main opposition, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and democracy and human rights advocacy NGOs.
For instance, during this COVID-19 lockdown, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) has been at the forefront of providing legal defence to human rights defenders, journalists and ordinary citizens who found themselves at the mercy of authorities. The ZLHR has also funded public interest litigation that has also seen the High Court directing the Ministry of Health to provide professional protective equipment (PPE) to health workers and roll out testing to the public. A significant number of NGOs and business and church leaders have also come to the fore, establishing charity platforms to mobilise humanitarian aid to support the vulnerable and refurbish medical centres and equip them with the necessary resources to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
A close reading of the responses of the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe clearly shows that it is very active and vibrant but always gets checkmated by its limited approach in dissecting national questions. Civil society in Zimbabwe has hardly questioned the role of the state, focusing more on legalism and litigation to discipline the errant state. This has seen the promotion of civil liberties at the expense of material and cultural rights.
It is abundantly clear that from the foregoing observations that the current architecture of the state has put into sharp relief the limitations of the neo-liberal state and markets. The question therefore, that beckons is: How do post-liberation movements deal with the question of material rights and redefine themselves? This is the elephant in the room that the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe has to tackle.
The responses to COVID-19 require to be put in a broader structural framework that is historical and not only driven by the moment. As Dr. Balakrishnan cautioned, “But let me tell you as a doctor, these are things you cannot just build up overnight. It takes years and years of investment in people, in systems, in capacity.”
A close examination will reveal that the countries that have managed to effectively respond to the pandemic are those with strong investments in public health. This brings us back to the question of the role of the state.
Civil society in Zimbabwe has hardly questioned the role of the state, focusing more on legalism and litigation to discipline the errant state. This has seen the promotion of civil liberties at the expense of material and cultural rights.
Zimbabwe’s economy has been largely agrarian, natural resource dependant, dominated by the service industry and characterised by high levels of informality and precarity. The labour force survey of 2014 estimated that 94.5 per cent of Zimbabweans earned their living in the informal sector. In 2017, artisanal/small-scale miners accounted for more gold output than large-scale miners. In 2012, the Environmental Management Agency of 2012 estimated their number to be around 500 000, a figure that should have grown by now.
In the 2018-2019 season, tobacco farmers recorded an all-time high yield of 258 million kilogrammes. Estimates put the number of small-scale farmers to between 80,000 and 90,000. Professor Brian Raftopoulos in his 2013 article, “Zimbabwean politics in the post 2013 election”, asserts that the country’s political economy had been reconfigured, giving rise to a new social base and thus calling for new forms of organising. This new social base is characterised by high levels of de-industrialisation and informality. The coming of the COVID-19 pandemic further problematises the role of the state and politics of public goods, especially in highly informalised economies like Zimbabwe. It’s quite clear that the issue of public goods can no longer be reduced to either the magic of the market or benevolent philanthropy and celebrity activism.
It is patently clear that the COVID-19 response in Zimbabwe has seen an absent state. The state has largely relied on benevolent philanthropy and celebrity activism whilst looting the public purse. The Ministry of Health and NatPharm (the national pharmaceutical company, a public enterprise) have been embroiled in one looting scandal after another. An investigation and expose by two online websites, ZimLive and The Zimbabwe Morning Post, implicate high profile government officials and the president’s children in fleecing the treasury through overpricing of medical supplies under the guise of dealing with COVID-19-related emergencies. These corruption scandals even gained the attention of Interpol, the international police agency, after a two-week-old company got paid US$2million by the Zimbabwe government.
A close examination will reveal that the countries that have managed to effectively respond to the pandemic are those with strong investments in public health. This brings us back to the question of the role of the state.
Meanwhile, the opposition has failed to make the government accountable as it is embroiled in internecine fights arising from the Supreme Court judgment of 31st of March 2020. At best, the main opposition has managed to issue a series of press statements without showing any clear direction on how to move forward.
Looking ahead, Zimbabwe’s pro-democracy movement may need to learn from Professor Issa Shivji’s wise words extensively quoted below:
The contemporary neo-liberal discourse has one fundamental blind spot. It treats the present as if the present has had no history. The discourse on democracy in Africa suffers from the same blindness. The struggle for democracy did not begin with the postcold war introduction of multi-party system. The independence and liberation struggles for self‐determination, beginning in the postworld war period, were eminently a struggle for democracy. Neither formal independence nor the victory of armed liberation movements marked the end of democratic struggles. They continued, albeit in different forms…the great democratic struggles of the African people expressed in their independence and national liberation movements remain incomplete. The so-called democracy constructed on ahistorical and asocial paradigms of neo-liberalism are an expression of renewed imperial onslaught, which is profoundly anti‐democratic…
This would mean a return to a political economy for the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe, which should begin to articulate the democratic struggle within the lived realities of the cross-border trader, the vegetable and fruit vendor, the small-scale farmer, the artisanal miner, the slum dweller in Hopley, the informal taxi operator, the menial worker and all the subalterns within Zimbabwe’s informalised economy. Doing so means bringing in class analysis and social and economic justice-based solutions to the core of public policy.
The current COVID-19-induced response of the state has shown why the pro-democracy movement should disentangle itself from the fallacious promise of neoliberal democracy and the magic of the market. Only when and until the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe realises that democracy needs to shift from just fighting for civil liberties to articulating how public goods and services can be rescued from the profit motive to bring about a better quality of life to humanity can it checkmate the reigning authoritarianism. This is the same way that the liberation movement was able to checkmate the Rhodesian Gulag State, despite its last leader, Ian Smith, proclaiming that “never in a thousand years”, will there ever be black rule.
Professor Shivji’s wisdom is instructive here:
The struggle for democracy is primarily a political struggle on the form of governance, thus involving the reconstitution of the state. No one claims that democracy means and aims at social emancipation. Rather it is located on the terrain of political liberalism so, at best, creating conditions for the emancipatory project. This is important to emphasize in light of the hegemony of neoliberal discourse, which tends to emasculate democracy of its social and historical dimensions and present it as an ultimate nirvana.
The question is: What would state reconstitution look like? Is it a return to socialism, the democratic developmental state or the social democratic state? The answer lies in any path that straddles through any of those types of state or their combination.
However, it is clear from the foregoing that the neoliberal state is not the solution. To respond to the rising authoritarianism, the pro-democracy movements need to return democratic politics to the core of delivering public goods and services and not servicing profits and the market. Doing so may mean designing critical intellectual projects meant to push back nationalist authoritarianism, increasing public ligation on the enforcement of the expanded bill of rights in the 2013 Constitution, building people’s movements anchored in collective action and solidarity around public goods rather than electoralism, and shying away from oligarchic tendencies.
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The Dictatorship of the Church
From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.
In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.
Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.
Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.
Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.
The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.
Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Critics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”
Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.
A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.
Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.
In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique
Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.
Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.
The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.
A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.
More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.
In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.
Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”
Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.
Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.
At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.
Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.
Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned. US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.
The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.
AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.
Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”
Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.
I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.
Sweet home Alabama!
An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.
Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.
He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.
We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.
What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.
Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked
King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.
In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.
Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.
Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.
Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.
“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.
The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.
According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.
A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.
The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”. “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.
These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.
The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.
The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.
The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.
The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”
With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:
And this bird, you cannot change
Lord help me, I can’t change….
Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.
Breaking the Chains of Indifference
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.
They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.
This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”
Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.
Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.
Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.
Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.
The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no retribution against the military for their actions.
During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.
Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.
Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.
Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
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