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Big Saturday Read: Davos’ shame as Zimbabwe burns

It is probably futile to appeal to the conscience of the men and women who will gather for the annual jamboree of the World Economic Forum in Davos. For many who will don their snow-boots to navigate the slippery terrain of the Swiss resort town, their empires stand on the sweat and tears, sometimes, the blood of the weakest of global society.

It could be the sweat-shops in Thailand or the mine shafts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, cheap labour and conflict underwrite maximum profits for these masters of the universe.

Despite their pontifications year after year, the world slips deeper into inequality, with the top few getting wealthier while the majority sinks into the murky waters of poverty. Far from being a rant against the wealthy, it is a desperate call to moral probity on the part of those who control the wealth of nations. History reminds us that faced with dictatorial regimes, hands dripping with the blood of the innocent, some in the Davos crowd would readily trade moral probity for maximum profits.

This is why, despite the protests, the Davos hosts will happily welcome Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa, ignoring the pleas of millions of suffering Zimbabweans currently under siege from their own government. He won’t be the first authoritarian ruler at the annual carnival of the business and political elites.

Mr Mnangagwa is currently on a four-nation tour of Russia and former satellite states of the old Soviet Union - Belarus, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. From a democracy and human rights perspective, he will be in comfortable territory. These are alien subjects in all four countries and Mnangagwa is in good company.

None of them would bat an eyelid over the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans. None can be expected to ask Mnangagwa to exercise restraint. They are not known for their moderation when dealing with disaffected citizens. If anything, Mnangagwa will have received reassurance and perhaps, some encouragement. Repression is par for the course in authoritarian regimes.

But later, Mnangagwa will travel to Davos for the World Economic Forum Annual Conference which runs from 22-25 January 2019. There, he will mix and mingle with the top elite of the political and business world. Will it be any different? Will they exercise more scrutiny of their guest? Zimbabweans have been calling on Davos to disinvite Mnangagwa but chances of that happening are slim.

But still, the hosts ought to know the responsibility they are taking and the cost of ignoring disaffected voices. The doors to Davos are not open to all. The rich pay top dollar to secure membership. For non-members, it’s an invitation-only gathering. Only a few favoured ones are occasionally invited. This year, like the last, Mnangagwa is one of them.

He made his maiden appearance in January 2018 on the back of huge popularity and goodwill following the ignominious departure of his predecessor Robert Mugabe. Mugabe was not welcome to Davos, so the invitation to Mnangagwa signalled new warmth towards Zimbabwe, for long regarded as a pariah state on account of its weak democratic credentials and an appalling human rights record. As if to spite Mugabe, the World Economic Forum used to regularly invite his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, who was treated as one of the stars from Africa, a continent with the least representation at the annual festival.

Now Mnangagwa had joined the party, based on the belief that he was the new bright star of Africa. To this band of optimists, it was as if Zimbabwe had just undergone a re-birth following the removal of Mugabe. It was a naïve and misguided view which paid scant regard to the history of Mnangagwa and his proximity to Mugabe, for whom he was the chief enforcer.

Indeed, those who had more than a fleeting understanding of the Zimbabwean political story were more sceptical and cautioned the Davos’ hosts. But they too were overcome by the euphoria and obliged with a late invitation to Mnangagwa.

It didn’t take long, however, before the new regime showed that the promise of a “New Dispensation” was utterly bereft of substance.

If the inclusion of Mnangagwa was that he was a new star on the continent, the light waned with alarming speed. Events over the past twelve months have proved that what the optimists saw was no more than a mirage. Far from a march towards change, the regime has been characterised by political inertia. While they may have spent millions on public relations, there is virtually no appetite for political reform.

Economically, the country hops from one faulty measure to another, leaving a trail of disaster. Mnangagwa brought in an outsider to run the economy, hoping to pump some energy and creativity in the system. Unfortunately, the new recruit has leapt from one controversial policy to another, leaving citizens perplexed, underwhelmed and angry.

Last August, Mnangagwa deployed armed soldiers into the streets of Harare, ostensibly to quell protests. They shot dead six civilians and 35 were injured. Mnangagwa set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the unrest. It found that Mnangagwa had deployed the troops and blamed the soldiers and police officers for the deaths and injuries.

However, to date Mnangagwa has not taken responsibility or apologised for the deaths and injuries. None of the soldiers who killed or injured civilians have been identified, let alone prosecuted. This inaction is a licence for impunity, just as it was during the old regime. What most Zimbabweans have discovered, even those who had given Mnangagwa the benefit of the doubt, is that while Mugabe may be gone, Mugabeism persists.

It is this truism that has evaded the Davos hosts. If they had paid attention to what happened during the election last year, the brutal killings and the failure to take responsibility, they might have reconsidered and reviewed their invitation list to this year’s event.

But bad as it was, that was before the latest set of ugly events, which have made it even more obvious that the regime is as brutal, if not worse, than the one led by Mugabe, a man the Davos hosts would not touch with a barge pole.

Looking at these double-standards, one is reminded of previous embarrassments during the Mugabe era, when against evidence of brutal rule, some Western countries and institutions showered him with accolades and awards, only to withdraw them a few years later. They had foolishly turned a blind eye to the misdeeds because they didn’t seem to matter to them.

The Davos hosts are walking the same troubled path. They will face embarrassment and when it happens they should not accuse critics of schadenfreude.

Three things stand out from the on-going crisis in Zimbabwe:

First, the State has, once again, and in less than six months reacted with a heavy hand and applied excessive and disproportionate force towards protests. More significantly, the State has unlawfully killed civilians. Zimbabwean law prohibits extra-judicial killings. Regime supporters like to cite the argument that the protests were violent, but by comparison, France had similarly violent demonstrations and civilians were not killed as has happened in Zimbabwe. It is possible to contain violent demonstrations without killing people. The Zimbabwean State has no regard for human life.

Second, the State has virtually suspended civil and political rights and liberties without declaring a State of Emergency. Citizens have been indiscriminately detained without trial. There appears to be a blanket ban on granting bail. They have been denied food, water, access to lawyers and medical treatment, all of which is guaranteed by the constitution. Security personnel and pseudo-demonstrators have been carrying out door-to-door campaigns in residential areas, harassing, beating up and detaining civilians. These illegalities are taking place on a rampant scale.

Third, and with far-reaching consequences, the State has ordered a ban on the use of the internet and social media. This has led to a communications blackout, as most Zimbabweans are highly dependent on the internet and social media like WhatsApp for communication. As already argued, this internet and social media shutdown is unlawful.

It has left Zimbabwe virtually shut out from the world in terms of communication. It also means victims of the on-going state-sponsored brutalities cannot tell their stories as effectively as they could using social media and the internet. Under this cover of darkness, the State has been able to perpetrate hideous acts upon the citizens, violating human rights on a grand scale.

Another implication is that commerce across the country is heavily affected since most traders and customers use electronic platforms which depend on the internet. The internet ban disables the payments system with dire consequences for an already decrepit economy. An unintended consequence is that the government loses revenue from the controversial 2% tax on electronic money transfers.

The irony is that while Mnangagwa will be telling the Davos crowd that “Zimbabwe is Open for Business”, the reality at home is that Zimbabwe is not open for the internet and social media, themselves important platforms and tools for doing business. It will even be more ironic in that among that Davos crowd will be tech billionaires and millionaires whose businesses thrive on the internet and social media.

There has never been a more self-defeating exercise than implementing an internet blackout twice in a week when you are busy pleading for investors to come to Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa has begun to sing the old Mugabesque “blame the sanctions” song, but the truth is his government is doing everything possible to discourage and scare off potential investors. With Zimbabwe back again in the news for all the wrong reasons, it is a hard-sell to investors.

There is no hope that Mnangagwa will follow the lead of peers around the world who, faced with serious national crisis, decided to withdraw from the Davos shindig. They may have their weaknesses, many of them, perhaps, but at least they had the sense to remain at home to attend to a crisis. There is an important symbolism in all this, that at the very least, a leader is concerned and responsibility seriously. By contrast, Mnangagwa seems to view the crisis as an unnecessary distraction which should be ignored. This is what happens when one is bereft of moral courage and authority.

The Davos hosts might not care much for the ordinary Zimbabwean. They would not have thought he was a worthy guest after the August 1 events. So they are unlikely to be fazed by the bloody crisis in the small southern African country. After all, moral authority is not one of the strongest points of the annual junket. Zimbabweans are already familiar with how local business elites converged around the regime, naively believing against common sense and available evidence, that it had the capacity and probity to steer the country out of the economic morass.

However, the hope is that the Fourth Estate will summon some courage and resist the lure of participating in a public relations campaign as was the case last January when he was treated to friendly matches. That allowed him to get away with empty slogans bereft of substance.

Instead, the media should pose hard questions. Why is he away for so long while the country is burning? Why has he shut down the internet and social media? How does he reconcile shutting down the internet and his mantra that Zimbabwe is open for business?

Does he know how many of his fellow citizens have been killed or injured by the State in the turmoil? What has he done about it? Why is the State using excessive force and killing people less than a month after a commission he set up found it did the same last August? Why hasn’t he apologised for the August killings? Did he take responsibility for the actions of the security forces? Why haven’t the killers of August 1 been identified or prosecuted?

Why is he using an expensive jet to travel around the world when his government is failing to provide basics for its citizens? How does he reconcile the austerity message with his lavish travel habit?

Zimbabwean media rarely has the opportunity to ask these questions because he does not give them personal interviews. Besides, it can be hazardous to ask these questions living in an authoritarian environment. Those foreign journalists who will get an opportunity to interview him should take up the challenge and do some robust interrogation.


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