Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.
ON a late morning in mid-August, two United States Senate aides were sitting at an outdoor café in Harare, Zimbabwe, with a civil society activist, when someone approached them with a warning.
They were being tailed and filmed by another man in the café, whom the spotter suspected was a member of the Zimbabwean government’s security services.
The two aides work for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and were on an official visit to the southern African country organised in concert with the US embassy to meet with human rights advocates and other civil society leaders and hear firsthand accounts of Zimbabwe’s deteriorating political and human rights situation under President Emmerson Mnangagwa. (They requested meetings with the Zimbabwean government, most of which were declined.)
After departing their meeting with the activist, they got into a US embassy vehicle, one of a fleet of clearly marked American government cars with diplomatic plates driven by an embassy staffer. They were driving away when several cars slotted into the road in front of them, to the side, and behind them. Suddenly, their car was boxed in.
At one point, according to one official briefed on the matter, they tried to call the US embassy for help, but their phones all lost reception, apparently simultaneously. They were on their own. After a tense standoff, as the phalanx of cars crawled along the road, the driver of the US embassy car saw an opening and swerved onto a side road to escape the tail. They rushed back to the US embassy compound before the pursuing cars could intercept them. From there, the US embassy worked to quickly ferry the two Senate staffers out of the country without further incident.
The ordeal, described to Foreign Policy by four current and former US officials familiar with the matter, stunned US diplomats and left them questioning what would have happened to the two Senate aides had the embassy vehicle not been able to make its escape. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak on the matter publicly.
The officials, who suspected Zimbabwean security services orchestrated the entire incident, said it underscored the increasingly brazen tactics of Mnangagwa’s government to suppress and intimidate political opponents and civil society activists as he strengthens his grip on power ahead of national elections next year. However, all of the officials cautioned that they couldn’t say with certainty who followed the staffers and chased the US embassy car.
The incident incensed US Senator Robert Menendez, the chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who sent a letter to President Joe Biden informing him of the harassment and car chase his staffers experienced. In the letter, he urged Biden to step up US attention on the “dire” repressive political atmosphere in Zimbabwe and boost support for the country’s increasingly embattled civil society organizations and pro-democracy activists.
“This blatant aggression towards congressional staff, one of whom—as the Zimbabweans surely know served as a senior advisor to you for many years when you were Chairman and Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee—was meant to intimidate the staff themselves, and to send a message to the United States: our support of Zimbabweans working to defend democracy is unwelcome by those who hold power,” Menendez wrote in his letter to Biden dated 12 September, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy. Menendez did not name the two staffers in his letter.
“Such outrageous behaviour highlights the Zimbabwean regime’s reckless disregard for international norms. If American officials are deliberately targeted, you can well imagine the violence that will be directed to Zimbabweans who dare to criticise the government.”
Menendez in his letter pushed Biden to bring up the political situation in Zimbabwe with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during their scheduled meeting at the White House on Friday. Menendez’s office did not offer additional comment on the matter.
From his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has pushed the Biden administration to put human rights and democracy at the centre of its foreign-policy agenda, even at times calling out the administration when he felt it was pulling its punches on matters of human rights abroad. Menendez earlier this year criticised the State Department for not publicly declaring whether the Ethiopian government was guilty of genocide or other war crimes during its nearly two-year-long Tigray war.
The Zimbabwean embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. The State Department also did not respond to a request for comment, including questions on whether it summoned the Zimbabwean ambassador in Washington, Tadeous Chifamba, to register formal protest.
For decades, Zimbabwe’s political scene was dominated by one man: Robert Mugabe. A former bush guerrilla who led his country to independence from white-minority rule in 1980, Mugabe ran a government that crushed political opponents with state-sanctioned violence, and he oversaw a system riven with corruption that drove the country into poverty, hyperinflation, and economic collapse. In 2017, Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former security chief, seized power from the aging and ailing president in a coup that international observers and pro-democracy activists in the country hoped would mark a turning point away from the Mugabe era.
They were wrong. In 2018, Mnangagwa was declared the victor in the country’s first major presidential election since Mugabe’s ouster after a campaign marred by accusations of fraud, voter intimidation, and violence. (Mugabe died the following year.) Since Mnangagwa took power, he has doubled down on a strategy of political repression and violence that came to define Mugabe’s reign in power, human rights advocates say.
“We have seen a massive deterioration of the human rights situation in the country in the last few years,” said Doug Coltart, a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer and attorney at Mtetwa & Nyambirai Legal Practitioners. “The human rights situation since the coup has been worse than the last decade of Mugabe’s rule.”
In 2020, three opposition political figures and human rights activists, Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri, and Netsai Marova, were arrested during a protest and say they were abducted, tortured, and sexually assaulted by Zimbabwean intelligence agents for two days. The Zimbabwean government denied the charges and arrested the activists again a month after their abduction, accusing them of lying about their torture. Another pro-democracy activist, Moreblessing Ali, was abducted and murdered earlier this year. (The Zimbabwean government denied any role in her killing.) Human rights watchdogs have also accused the Zimbabwean government of cracking down on political opponents under the guise of enforcing public health protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Another Zimbabwean pro-democracy activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said they expected the government to step up its violent crackdown on political opposition in the run-up to the country’s elections next year. Members of one of the most prominent opposition parties, the Citizens’ Coalition for Change, say they expect voter intimidation, ballot-rigging, and other forms of election meddling by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) party to stay in control.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which is supposed to oversee the country’s elections with impartial authority, is stacked with the children of Zanu PF stalwarts, including the daughter of a former vice president, the daughter of a former minister for mining, and the son of current Zimbabwean Foreign Affairs minister Frederick Shava. “The 2023 election has been rigged already,” Tawanda Kasirori, an opposition member, told Al Jazeera last month.
On Thursday, the US Treasury Department announced new sanctions on a senior Zimbabwean security officer, Stephen Mutamba, for his role in the pressure and intimidation campaigns against political parties that oppose Mnangagwa’s rule. Menendez and his Republican counterpart on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator James Risch, publicly cheered the move. Risch suggested in a tweet that the Biden administration should consider blocking the Zimbabwean foreign minister, Shava, from being invited to the upcoming US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington in December.
“The United States continues to stand with the Zimbabwean people against unjust actions against political opponents or assaults on Zimbabwe’s democracy by the Zanu PF,” Brian Nelson, the US undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement announcing the new sanctions.–ForeignPolicy.com.