IT was the influential Chinese thinker Lin Yutang who once made a simple but interesting observation which applies to the rough-and-tumble world of politics and to life in general: “When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means the sun is about to set.”
Zimbabweans have witnessed very strange manoeuvres during the Covid-19 lockdown, with political midgets now casting gigantic shadows across the national stage. It is not by accident but by design.
Two expressions have gained currency and gripped the public imagination since the Covid-19 pandemic plunged the world into untold suffering around February this year: “In confusion there is profit” and “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.
There is no doubt that many have profited from Covid-19: dictators, political thugs, organised criminals, opportunists and unprincipled poseurs.
In this country, citizens have witnessed in horror as brazen “Covidpreneurs” and their corrupt political overlords connived to loot funds meant for the public health emergency. It did not matter to these criminals that lives were at stake; fattening their pockets was more important.
An outrageous dimension to this Covid-19 scandal is the arrest and harassment of dozens of journalists. Their crime? Simply doing their work, which is guaranteed by the constitution.
Journalists were not the only victims of brutality. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) has revealed that it recorded 820 violations from 30 March when the lockdown began to 9 August.
A heavy-handed law-and-order approach to what is essentially a global health emergency is not in the best interests of public policy.
We must ask ourselves, for instance, why the government is increasingly resorting to the twin tactic of promulgating an endless stream of statutory instruments while unleashing mayhem on pro-democracy campaigners.
Statutory instruments are delegated or subsidiary legislation. Most level-headed people concede that it would be unreasonable to expect a government in the 21st century to totally desist from governing by decree via statutory instruments. There are genuine situations where the subordinate legislation is unavoidable. But any country that describes itself as a constitutional democracy must ensure that the executive arm of government—in exercising the delegated authority—does not overstep its powers.
The National Assembly seemed to finally emerge from the woodwork last week amid reports that the Parliamentary Legal Committee (PLC) had issued an adverse report condemning Statutory Instrument 225A of 2020 (suspension of by-elections) as unconstitutional. The PLC story now appears to have been a hoax. Parliament suddenly flexing its muscle? Many will doubt that.
Citizens’ constitutional right to elect representatives of their choice is no laughing matter. A partisan politician—sitting in a taxpayer-funded air-conditioned office along Harare’s Samora Machel Avenue—must never be allowed to take away that right on a whim.
The principle of the separation of powers requires parliament to live up to its constitutional duty of calling the executive to account. The abuse of power is one of the factors contributing to bad governance and leadership failure in Zimbabwe.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, the Zanu-PF government has presided over what is essentially a de facto state of emergency. There is no robust accountability—not only for the statutory instruments, some of which are being amended at a frenetic pace much to the confusion of the public, but also for the national Covid-19 response which has not been subjected to the necessary scrutiny. Can anyone show us where all the Covid-19 donations ended up?
The state-orchestrated siege has seen civil society activists, students, journalists, trade unionists and pro-democracy campaigners fleeing their homes in fear. Abduction, torture and outright assassination—which were deployed by Zanu PF to devastating effect in the 1980s—are once again being used to crush dissent. If you thought the one-party state project of yesteryear was frightening, imagine for a moment what a one-man state would look like. It brings to mind George Orwell’s immortal words: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Parliament was rendered useless during the Covid-19 lockdown. Civil society was vocal but the government’s hostility has significantly eroded the reach and influence of human rights defenders.
Even the courts of law have not been spared the malaise.
The authorities announced that non-essential court cases would be put on ice. Shockingly, we saw some non-essential cases being processed by the judiciary, including matters which the court of public opinion has since concluded were calculated to throw the opposition into unmitigated political chaos.
Some have claimed—and unconvincingly so—that the government is just a victim of crude anti-Zimbabwe propaganda. They argue that the crackdown on opponents only exists in the fertile imagination of excitable critics.
It is a threadbare argument, although many have swallowed it hook, line and sinker. If your stance is that complaints about the silencing of dissent are just a spectacle contrived by political loudmouths and busybodies, how do you explain the government’s spectacular failure to deliver to the masses the social safety nets which ministers have been falsely promising since March? Surely, a government’s primary responsibility is to safeguard the lives of citizens. What can anyone buy with a ZW$300 monthly Covid-19 allowance? Are we to believe that these, too, are the idle complaints of so-called political malcontents?
The social development indicators are dire. An estimated 60% of the population faces starvation, easily in excess of 8,5 million citizens. Extreme poverty is now endemic. Chronic high inflation has decimated salaries. Livelihoods have been destroyed. Hospitals are dilapidated and health professionals demoralised. Teachers have declared incapacitation and children will now suffer a double tragedy: losing months of schooling due to the lockdown and now facing the scary prospect of watching helplessly as an entire year goes down the drain.
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama has correctly observed that the countries which will feel the full impact of Covid-19 are those deficient in the following three qualities: leadership, social trust and state capacity.
No face mask or sanitiser can protect citizens from brutal rule. It will take eternal vigilance and the courage of our convictions to build the Zimbabwe we all deserve.