Zimbabwe’s Poor Restart Reply

Prominent Zimbabwean attorney and human rights activist Beatrice Mtetwa talks about the problems with her country’s new constitution and new government, as Barbara Borst reports.

Beatrice Mtetwa, left, speaking about Zimbabwe at the International Peace Institute, with Mireille Affa'a-Mindzie of IPI. Photo by Barbara Borst

Beatrice Mtetwa, left, speaking about Zimbabwe at the International Peace Institute, with Mireille Affa’a-Mindzie of IPI.
Photo by Barbara Borst

Background: Robert Mugabe, 89, has been Zimbabwe’s leader since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change rose in the 1990s to contest his authoritarian rule. In the 2008 elections, MDC-T presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai claimed victory but Mugabe forced a second round. Mugabe supporters terrorized the opposition until Tsvangirai withdrew, leaving Mugabe the disputed winner. The divided country was paralyzed and the economy collapsing until international efforts helped Zimbabwean leaders to broker a government of national unity, with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister. That government rewrote the constitution and ran the July 2013 elections, in which Mugabe was reelected to full power. As the International Crisis Group said before the ballot: “Conditions for a free and fair vote do not exist.” 

“For us, it’s a very bad start” to the new government and new constitution, Beatrice Mtetwa said during a recent talk at the International Peace Institute in New York. An attorney who has defended political opposition leaders, human rights activists and journalists, Mtetwa has occasionally been arrested for her work. She also has won numerous awards from international press freedom organizations and human rights groups.

Here are some of her comments on the struggle to make Zimbabwe’s government protect human rights and end impunity for abuses:

“The new constitution…looks fantastic on paper. But what constitution doesn’t?” Mtetwa asked. “The problem is almost always in implementation.”

“The implementation of this document is very precarious,” she added

The constitution calls for commissions on human rights, gender, and peace and reconciliation, but these require enabling legislation. She believes it was a mistake not to pass that legislation under the government of national unity. Mtetwa said there is little chance that the current legislature, in which Mugabe’s ZANU-PF holds an overwhelming majority, will pass those laws.

What Zimbabwe needs, she said, is a functioning human rights commission that can work to end impunity for rights abusers. It also needs a judicial system that is independent of politicians. Neighboring South Africa provides an example of what can be done, she said.

“It’s the only country in the region where government and ministers are regularly taken to court and lose,” Mtetwa said. “That’s why an independent judiciary, in my view, is one of the pillars”

But Zimbabwe faces problems with the appointment of judges and prosecutors, she said, and with a prosecutor general who has “selectively” applied the law, for example, by arresting and prosecuting anti-corruption officials for investigating powerful people.

Mtetwa said that when she was called to the home of one of the anti-corruption officials during a police raid, she asked to see a search warrant. For that, she said, she was arrested and charged with obstructing police; she was later acquitted, as was the official.

“The prosecutor is investigating persons who are investigating him for corruption, for corruption,” she said.

The news media in Zimbabwe, many of them controlled by the ruling party, play a significant role in dividing the country, Mtetwa said. The media commission has yet to act on opening the airwaves or ending the requirement that journalists get government accreditation. The media minister says he wants openness, she added, but “the jury is still out.”

She said that journalists need to “give their time and expertise” to push for an effective media commission. In the meantime, “We just might be lucky that there’s enough acrimony within the ruling party” for stories to leak out, she added.

Some 3 million of Zimbabwe’s 13 million people live outside the country, mainly in South Africa. Mtetwa said they are not likely to be a major force for change because they are not organized as a movement, and many have given up on their homeland.

The internation

Beatrice Mtetwa listening to questions from the audience at the International Peace Institute. Photo by Barbara Borst

Beatrice Mtetwa listening to questions from the audience at the International Peace Institute.
Photo by Barbara Borst

al community focuses on places where there are “rivers of blood” rather than chronic political problems, she said, but Zimbabwe still needs to seek its support on governance issues.

Young people should be a priority, she said; they once were organized and protested for their rights but now seem to be copying their elders in prioritizing political connections over education. She noted that, with an unemployment rate of at least 80 percent, a degree is no guarantee of getting a job.

“What we really need now is maybe to concentrate on younger leaders who have not been tainted by the culture of dying in office,” she said.

“It’s not like African leaders don’t know what’s right or wrong. They put it in the constitution,” Mtetwa said. But, once they taste power, they refuse to give it up.

“I don’t know if there’s some kind of medication” to cure that, she added. “It’s a culture we’ve seen over and over in Africa.”

But she does believe that African institutions can help Zimbabwe move forward. Those institutions require that Zimbabwean activists exhaust all remedies within their country first.

“One of the good things that has happened is that we think we can actually take the constitutional court to the constitutional court and ask them to recuse themselves and have judges from the region brought in,” Mtetwa said. “If we fail, we would be able to take it out to the regional African commission or the African court of human rights, but they don’t have any teeth.”

“The only way to change things,” she added, “is to litigate and litigate until somebody gets tired and does the right thing.”

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