Zimbabwe Purge a Bad Omen for Rights

<p>Grace Mugabe, wife of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, talks to Deputy President Emmerson Mnangagwa (R) in Harare December 10, 2014.</p>

Sometimes, a political reshuffle can bring new hopes for reform. What’s happening in Zimbabwe right now, however, is unlikely to be one of those occasions.

There’s no denying a reshuffle is occurring. Yesterday, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who is also leader of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), appointed Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and Ambassador Phelekezela Mphoko to be his deputies in the party and in government. This follows Mugabe’s firing of Vice President Joyce Mujuru from government together with eight other ministers whom he publicly accused of plotting to murder him.

Plus, last week, during ZANU-PF’s 6th Congress, Mugabe had secured party endorsement to be the party’s 2018 presidential candidate, when he will be 94; appointed his wife to head the women’s wing of the party; and had the party’s constitution amended to allow him to make all senior party appointments.

For many Zimbabweans, these changes in the ZANU-PF leadership, particularly Mugabe’s presidential endorsement for 2018, reflect a consolidation of Mugabe’s grip on the party and government, a retention of the status quo and dash expectations for lasting rights reforms.

As justice minister, Mnangagwa recently refused to approve the death sentence for 97 murder convicts, criticizing the death penalty as too harsh. But he was also in charge of state security between 1980 and 1988, when the government deployed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, which slaughtered an estimated 20,000 civilians in Matebeleland and Midlands provinces in what became known as the Gukurahundi massacres. No one was ever held accountable for those a, despite excellent documentation from local civil society groups.

Mnangagwa and his supporters are widely perceived to be hardliners likely to use repressive measures to control Zimbabweans while ignoring steps to improve the human rights environment and people’s livelihoods. On the other hand, the now vanquished Mujuru camp was viewed as moderate and open to engagement to push for rights and governance reforms that could have restored investor confidence and revived the economy.

Mugabe’s purge of several senior officials has created tension within the party and could trigger instability within the country, as ZANU-PF has close ties to the security forces leadership, which has a long history of being highly partisan on behalf of the ruling party.

It would be good to see President Mugabe and his “new” crop of party leaders publicly commit to respect human rights, back democratic processes and implement important rights reforms essential for economic development and improvement in the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans. Few feel this reshuffle will bring that.