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President Emmerson Mnangagwa greets supporters of his ruling ZANU PF party gather for an election rally in Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe, July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo - RC1A80283490

Opinion

The weaponisation of Covid-19 in Zanu PF factional wars: A new deadly political threat

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By Jonathan Moyo

LAST week we published an opinion-editorial by Professor Jonathan Moyo under The Big Debate Column, but we left out critical illustrations due to technical hitches. That resulted in significant gaps and omissions. So as a result we are republishing the full article, with graphics.

There is a new and dangerous security threat in Zimbabwe’s politically dysfunctional post-November 2017 military state, under an increasingly factionalised Zanu PF and a collapsing economy now run by feuding cartels fuelled by systematic corruption. And that threat is the weaponization of Covid-19, whose capabilities are real and worrying.

The sudden death of Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Mozambique and former Zimbabwe National Army’s Chief-of-Staff, Retired Lieutenant-General Douglas Nyikayaramba who also once controversially served on secondment from the Army as the Chief Elections Office of the Zimbabwe Electoral Supervisory Commission abolished in 2005 and replaced by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), has triggered wagging tongues amid a growing sentiment in military intelligence circles that a securocratic faction loyal to President Mnangagwa has weaponised Covid-19 to target key military members of a rival faction who are close to Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga and who played strategic roles in the November 2017 military coup that toppled the late President Mugabe and replaced him with Mnangagwa.

The anxious sentiment that Covid-19 has been weaponised by Mnangagwa’s securocrats against allies of his deputy, who led the military coup three years ago as the Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), has been fuelled first by the deaths of former Air Marshall Perence Shiri, who became agriculture minister after the military coup and ZDF spokesperson Colonel Overson Mugwisi, who both died of Covid-19 in July 2020.

This sentiment gained conventional traction last month with the shock deaths from Covid-19 of Retired Lieutenant-General Sibusiso Moyo, who was foreign minister, and the regime’s think-tank who was famous for announcing the November 2017 military coup on national television; and Retired Major-General Paradzai Zimondi, who was a central member of the service chiefs in the Joint Operations Command (JOC) in the run up to the military coup. Moyo and Zimondi were key Chiwenga allies.

With Nyikayaramba’s death this week, the sentiment that some securocrats in a Zanu PF faction close to Mnangagwa have weaponised Covid-19 against military-linked supporters of Chiwenga reached fever pitch. The sentiment has not been helped by the fact that Mnangagwa has been shunning in person contact with his cabinet ministers, including his two deputies—Chiwenga and Kembo Mohadi—since early December; preferring to engage them through digital or virtual communication. 

For all intents and purposes, Mnangagwa has become reclusive; apparently afraid of Covid-19.  This explains not only why he went on holiday for a whole month in January, but also why Cabinet did not meet for almost two months since 8 December 2020 until this week; during the time when Zimbabwe experienced the worst devastation from a deadly second wave of the coronavirus.

Although the beleaguered authorities in Harare have sought to downplay or even to conceal the untold devastation that Zimbabwe suffered from the coronavirus last month, causing Mnangagwa and his Cabinet to maroon themselves out of sight; leaving Zimbabweans alone, as the chatter about the weaponisation of Covid-19 grew louder among military securocrats; the tip of the iceberg is easy to tell by simply unpacking the difference between the government’s Covid-19 situation report of 31 January 2021 and that of 31 December 2020, as shown by the figures made public by the Ministry of Health and Child Care reproduced in the diagram below:

From the above government figures, on 31 December 2020 Zimbabwe had 13,867 reported covid-19 cases with 363 deaths, whereas on 31 January it had 33,388 reported cases with 1,217 deaths.  Over the first two weeks in February, Mnangagwa’s propaganda apparatchiks have used the January figures deceptively, based on an approach which, like a miniskirt, is revealing while it in fact conceals the critical point.

In this regard, the critical point that Mnangagwa’s regime has sought to conceal is twofold. First, as shown on the pie charts below, from 31 December 2020 to 31 January 2021, the official Covid-19 cases reported by the government itself, in just four short weeks, spiked by a shocking 141%, while deaths skyrocketed by 235%.

The regime has sought to conceal these staggering spikes of Covid-19 cases and deaths which happened when Mnangagwa and his Cabinet marooned themselves under the cover of undeserved and irresponsible holidays that smacked of dereliction of their constitutional duties, seemingly unmoved by the Covid-19 disaster that consumed the country; based on official figures, that have not been properly analysed.

While the fact that the Covid-19 cases jumped by 141% and the deaths by 235% from 31 December 2020 to 31 January 2021 is astounding, it is important to consider that the same period saw an increase of unreported in community cases and deaths, as medical doctors started providing homecare to Covid-19 patients in low density areas in towns, with the cases and deaths in high density and rural areas going untested and unattended to. 

The second part of the critical point concealed by the regime is that it has sought to conceal is the fact that the government has been paralysed into confusion and inaction by the fear that a section of its securocracy has weaponised Covid-19 and is politically using the weaponisation capabilities to devastate the targeted political opponents. It is this fear that caused the cabinet, politburo and security sector “chefs” to retreat to their farms last month.

What has jolted the system to the core and spread fear like a veld fire is that every top military officer from the November 2017 coup who has died so far, has died of Covid-19.  This has been compounded by the view among securocrats that the Covid-19 protocols that have been invoked to restrict body viewing, and in most cases to also restrict autopsies, make the coronavirus a perfect agent of death, hence the widespread panic in the corridors of power. The securocrats who are concerned about this say the coronavirus is not like most weaponized viruses that can be made into aerosols for maximum dispersion, because they say all it requires is a simple swab, of an infected corpse or from an assigned Covid-19 testing laboratory, to apply for example on a doorknob, car seat or armrest, cabinet file, office teacups or mugs and the job is done.  

The worry among securocrats, especially in military circles, is that the simplicity with which the coronavirus can be captured and applied to a targeted surface means that any agency can weaponise Covid-19 with relative ease, even in the most basic of situations.

The table below highlights the dangers that have exercised the imagination of the securocrats who are concerned about the weaponisation of Covid-19 in the system. Also shown on the table are counter measures or steps that can be taken to minimise those dangers:

Going forward, the threat of the weaponization of Covid-19 by a section of the securocracy is daunting largely if not only because Mnangagwa’s regime does not have a comprehensive, coherent, scientific and credible national plan or strategy for dealing with the pandemic in the national interest. For example, the regime’s Covid-19 database is fraudulent and thus unreliable. Instead of supporting and letting medical and public health professionals to lead the fight against the coronavirus as first responders and the frontline base, the Mnangagwa regime has sought to be in front of them.

The regime has used coronavirus lockdowns as law-and-order lockdowns with no clear cut, transparent and measurable public health objectives. Looking back since the first lockdown on 31 March 2020, Mnangagwa’s regime has been preoccupied more with fighting the MDC-Alliance and targeted activists and journalists than fighting the coronavirus.

Government and Zanu PF officials have contemptuously violated with reckless abandon the gazetted lockdown regulations, such as the restriction of public gatherings or the limitation on the number of people allowed to attend legally exempted gatherings. Also there has been selective application of the law whose consequence has exposed the fact that the government’s response to the coronavirus has not been scientific or data driven but has been political and hypocritical.

For example, while the government used the coronavirus lockdown to indefinitely postpone by-elections for parliamentary and local government vacancies, caused by the controversial recall of MDC-Alliance incumbents on the back of a dubious Supreme Court judgment that ordered the MDC to hold an extraordinary congress on the basis of its 2014 structures to elect a successor to the party’s late President Morgan Tsvangirai, Zanu PF was allowed to hold nationwide elections for its District Coordinating Committees (DCCs).

It is against this backdrop that a devious opportunity for the weaponization of Covid-19 has presented itself. The consequences of this real danger are too ghastly to contemplate.

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