By Ambassador Brian A. Nichols
In the late morning of August 1, 2018, I was in President Mnangagwa’s office with then U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, one of the sponsors of the ZDERA amendment, listening to the president’s assessment of Zimbabwe’s Harmonized Elections completed two days before. While the process was not without flaws, election day itself had clearly been an improvement over years past. Zimbabwe appeared close to clearing its first major hurdle towards re-engagement with the international community.
Tragically, this all changed by the early afternoon when I heard gunshots outside my office window coming from Harare’s CBD. The killing of 6 civilians and wounding of 35 more by security forces on that day remains a huge setback for Zimbabwe in the eyes of the international community. The security forces further exacerbated this setback by systematically targeting opposition and civil society members in their homes, first in Harare’s high-density suburbs, and later throughout the country, for much of August 2018.
President Mnangagwa deserves much credit for inviting former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe to lead a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate the events of that fateful day. Ultimately, the COI produced a thorough report with many sound recommendations that the president announced and unconditionally accepted on December 18, 2018. On January 28, 2019, he formed a special cabinet task force led by the Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs specifically tasked to implement these recommendations.
Unfortunately, now over seven months after the Motlanthe Report’s release, the government has very little to show in terms of its progress. I read as of mid-June the Ministry of Justice was processing 35 victims’ claims for compensation. While laudable, this should not take so long. I continue to hear about how the police are being “re-equipped” to better deal with demonstrations, as if this was the central lesson learned from the commission’s report. I have yet to learn of a single soldier or security forces member held to account for the deaths of civilians as the report clearly mandated.
Sadly, the ink was barely dry on the report before security forces again acted with impunity killing more civilians in January 2019. Likewise, the government has held no one to account for these deaths either. Equally troubling, Deputy Minister of Defense Victor Matemadanda threatened to use soldiers “trained to kill” against protesters only a few days ago.
President Mnangagwa relieved four generals of their command in February 2019, one of whom testified before the COI to having command responsibility over the soldiers sent into the CBD on August 1. The commission found that those soldiers’ use of live ammunition at fleeing civilians was “clearly unjustified and disproportionate.” However, the president has never explained publicly why these generals were promoted and then dismissed.
This speaks to the issue of trust. The Zimbabwean people need to be able to believe its government. They deserve to be able to trust that the difficult austerity measures their leaders continue to implement in line with the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund are for their long-term benefit. They need to be able to believe that the government intends to implement the political and economic reforms contained in the president’s Vision 2030 and Transition Stabilization Plan. They need to believe that the government is serious about rooting out corruption, which has cost the Zimbabwean economy US$1 billion per year.
I’m not talking about bureaucratic processes and promises of reform. I’m talking about laws that are aligned to the constitution. Laws that unequivocally protect human rights, freedom of speech, and an independent judiciary. Laws that deter corruption and reject impunity for even the highest in this land. These are the reforms that will unlock Zimbabwe’s potential, and gain the trust of its citizens as well as the international community.
The United States cares deeply for the people of Zimbabwe and remains hopeful that the best days are still ahead for this great nation. I want nothing more than for this government to succeed by truly embracing the path towards reform.
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Note: This article was first published in NewsDay, August 1, 2019