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COVID-19 and Conflict | How pandemic regulations are being used to target the political opposition in Zimbabwe

Introduction to ‘Covid-19 and Conflict’ Blog Series: When Disasters, Conflict and Covid-19 Collide

Responding to the international Covid-19 pandemic is particularly complex in settings of (post) conflict and/or conflict settings underpinned by authoritarian political regimes. In such scenarios, the national responses to the pandemic may be weakened, the infrastructure to respond adequately may be lacking, and power games may easily ensue where response to the pandemic get instrumentalised to serve political interests. To get a better grasp of the interaction and dynamics of top-down and bottom-up Covid-19 responses in such settings, research was conducted in seven different contexts over the summer of 2020, and the findings will be showcased on Bliss through several blog articles. 

The research underlying the blogs was facilitated by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and made possible by a NWO grant (number 453-14-013). It is linked to the research project ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ (Discord) hosted at the ISS. More comprehensive findings of the case studies will be shared in different formats, including working papers or articles, on the VICI research webpage: www.iss.nl/whendisastermeetsconflict

Covid-19 and Conflict | How pandemic regulations are being used to target the political opposition in Zimbabwe

By James Kunhiak Muorwel, Lara Vincent and Lize Swartz

Relatively few Covid-19 infections and deaths have been registered in Zimbabwe, yet the Southern African country has been hit hard by the pandemic. Our recent research on Covid-19 responses in Zimbabwe shows that in the face of a strict lockdown and ongoing economic repercussions, one of the biggest worries for Zimbabwean citizens ironically is falling prey to the instrumental and strategic use of laws meant to protect them from the virus, which are apparently being used to continue decades-long political repression.

prison covid corona

While Zimbabwe has registered relatively few Covid-19 cases since the virus first appeared here on 20 March this year, the country’s political and socio-economic situation has ensured that the pandemic’s impact has been severe despite low infection and death rates. A country in Sub-Saharan Africa notorious for years of misrule and economic mismanagement under Robert Mugabe following independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe’s challenges have been severe. Now, hopes of progress in the country’s ongoing bid to free itself from the chains of dictatorship that have bound it for decades and the consequent economic effects that continue to haunt the country following the transition to a new government have been dashed by the onset of the pandemic in March. Critical voices have been forcefully silenced by the current regime, which has used the pandemic as a pretext for renewed political repression.

Research on Covid-19 responses in Zimbabwe carried out between June and August this year by James Kunhiak Muorwel and Lara Vincent sought to provide a compact overview of grounded experiences of life in Zimbabwe during the lockdown. For the research, the greatest challenges for civil society, in particular given Zimbabwe’s fragile political context, were investigated by conducting online interviews with some key informants and studying reports, news articles, and other sources. A few key findings are detailed below.

Like most other countries, following the first registered case of Covid-19 in March this year, Zimbabwe introduced stringent measures to slow the spread of the virus. Measures were rolled out in two phases: first, in April, the country was placed under a total lockdown lasting for 21 days. All economic activity ceased as people were confined to their houses, forced to eke out a living and survive on the bare minimum. Then, the economy was partially reopened and the movement of people eased in a bid to prevent the economy from suffering further and to counter hunger and increased poverty.

But especially in the first lockdown phase, many Zimbabweans were forced to break lockdown regulations—with severe consequences. A majority of Zimbabweans rely on the informal sector for their living. In 2020, the World Bank estimated that extreme poverty in the country is on the rise – “from 29 percent in 2018 to 34 percent in 2019”. It could even get worse when you add to the mix the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on the country.

The impact has already been significant, compounded by health and sanitation problems, poor economic performance, high unemployment rates, droughts, food insecurity, corruption, and the general political climate in the country. Closing businesses and restricting free movement of the majority of the population who rely on informal jobs for survival as part of the lockdown might have been economic suicide for the country. As lockdown measures took effect and most businesses remained closed, many families went hungry, without money to stock enough food. Basic staple food items such as mealie meal (maize meal) became scarce. Cases of gender-based violence have spiked during this period partly because families are confined to one living environment for longer periods than before the lockdown. It may have also exacerbated anxiety and mental health problems.

Many Zimbabweans thus felt they had no choice but to disobey the regulations, our research shows. Their actions attracted a disproportionate response from the government. In July 2020, the BBC reported that 105,000 people said to have breached restrictions were arrested. These numbers quoted are between March (when the lockdown came into effect) and July, but more people might be behind bars. Parliamentarians representing the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a renowned journalist, as well as a prominent novelist were arrested in July for organizing an ‘illegal’ gathering to protest against the lockdown measures, exposing corruption, and demand for the resignation of President Emerson Mnangagwa. The government has called those arrested “dark forces,” and the protesters a “few bad apples”.

Our interviews[1] with research participants, as well as a study of NGO reports and continuous allegations by human rights groups, have revealed widespread arrests and money extortion by the state’s security apparatuses during the lockdown. As Peter[2], one of the research participants, bluntly stated, “for me, the lockdown was a convenient political state of emergency, not necessarily a public health statement.” He also expressed his frustration that citizens who were being arrested for breaking lockdown regulations were being placed in crowded cells where social distancing was not possible.

The phenomenon of arresting opposition figures is not new. For over four decades, the political regime headed by former president Robert Mugabe was characterized by violent suppression of political dissent. The opposition was targeted under the pretext of bogus laws that made their actions appear illegal. His successor, current President Manangagwa, has also been accused by human rights groups and the opposition party of using old tactics to exploit the current situation. Yet the transition to a new political regime following Mugabe’s toppling brought hope to many Zimbabweans. It now seems overshadowed by the threat of violent repression—the spectre seems to have not disappeared, after all.

Staying at home is not an option for most Zimbabweans, especially when they do not have savings or social protection measures to help them bear the economic burden of the pandemic lockdown. As they continue moving around, they continue putting themselves at risk of arrest and torture by the police, first, and of infection with Covid-19, second. What will the consequences be?

Zimbabwe is not the first country to treat a pandemic or a disasters triggered by natural hazards as a national security issue, but it is the consequences of the government’s actions at this particular time that are worrying. We anticipate that harassment and illegal arrests of political opponents and vendors by police in the name of lockdown violations will leave the society polarised more than ever before thereby setting the stage for more street confrontations between the security apparatuses and the demonstrators. It is troubling that there is a brutal crackdown on the violation of lockdown regulations without taking into account the circumstances, and we see that street vendors, commuters and the like are treated as political opponents. It is imperative to continue sharing grounded experiences of political repression in Zimbabwe and to speak out against it so that it does not undo all the progress that has been achieved in the last few years in reversing the devastating impacts of Zimbabwe’s rule under Mugabe’s dictatorial regime.

[1] A research project on Covid-19 in Zimbabwe that was conducted by Lara Vincent and James Kunhiak Muorwel between June and August 2020 was part of the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam’s “When Disaster Meets Conflict” project that looks at ‘informing better linkages between top-down, external measures and local, socially and culturally appropriate initiatives’. NWO project number 453/14/013

[2] Name has been changed to protect interviewee’s identity.

About the authors:

James Kunhiak Muorwel holds an MA degree in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam and BA in Business Administration from Makerere University. His recent research was on the Covid-19 situation in Zimbabwe. He also has many years of work experience with international development organisations, including the UN. Follow him on Twitter @JKunhiak

Lara Vincent holds an MA degree in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. While at ISS she majored in Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies, with a specialisation in Environment and Sustainable Development.

Lize SwartzLize Swartz is the editor of ISS Blog Bliss and a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She researches the biopolitics of water scarcity in South Africa.

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EADI/ISS Series | Empowering African Universities to have an impact by Liisa Laakso

Discussions on the impact of higher education and research have increased, together with the rise of strategic thinking in the management of universities during the last decade. Governments, taxpayers and private funders want to know which benefits they get from universities. Academic Institutions, in turn, want to prove how their work is beneficial to society in multiple ways. This tells us much about the global management culture in public services – and about a new pressure against the academic authority and standing of universities.

For example, the government of Zimbabwe’s new plan for higher education, the so-called 5.0-University vision, stipulates that universities must also include innovation and industrialisation in their activities – in addition to their three academic tasks education, research and community service.

The stated purpose of this plan is to reconfigure the education system of the country to create jobs and economic growth along with the fourth revolution “to transform the country’s economy into an upper-middle income by the year 2030”. Simultaneously, however, political turmoil and rampant corruption have created an economic crisis that is dramatically weakening the previously good working conditions at the universities in terms of resources, infrastructure and salaries.

Zimbabwe might be an extreme case, but it is not alone. The rhetoric of the importance of industry and ‘value for money’ invested in universities and the simultaneous cuts in their public funding resonates both with the technocratic and populistic views of higher education, if not reactionary voices against educated elites all over the world.

What does this rhetoric mean for the production of scientific knowledge in different disciplinary fields and in governance and development studies in particular? For medical sciences or engineering, identifying and measuring their impact and relevance can be quite straightforward. But for sciences focusing on policies and their critiques, such a task is complex, as their impacts are diverse, often indirect, slow and long-term.

Making disciplinary knowledge on governance and development relevant again

Research-based disciplinary knowledge on governance and development is not directly connected to innovation or industrialisation, but it has very much to do with the legitimacy and functioning of the social, political and economic organisations and structures that enable them. In a context of political transitions or struggles for democratisation happening in large parts of the Global South, one could assume that such a role is very important. But how to show that? Judgments about the importance of particular degree programs and research fields are also judgments about the marginalization of others. It is easy to give concrete examples of the usefulness of administrative studies, but not of political theory. The whole exercise relates to very fundamental values and epistemological premises of university disciplines.

Much of this epistemological discussion has centered on the necessity of state-led development or on decolonisation. The first one formed an important part of the expansion of higher education after the independence of African states and again in late 1970s and 1980s with the heyday of the dependency school. It resulted in the establishment of institutes or university departments of development studies, often with a political economy or an explicitly stated socialist orientation. One of the forerunners was the University of Dar es Salaam. In Zimbabwe, the Institute of Development studies ZIDS was first established under the government and later integrated into the University of Zimbabwe. But ZIDS does not exist anymore. In order to respond to today’s demands of the government, the profile of development studies apparently is no longer as relevant for the university as it used to be.

Do University curricula respond to the societal needs in the Global South?

Calls for decolonisation in the aftermath of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Fees Must Fall” student uprisings at the University of Cape Town have drawn attention to the fact that a decades-long evolution of higher education in the independent South has not abolished global asymmetries in knowledge production. Western traditions and theorizing still dominate much of the academic literature, including that on governance and development. Thus the concern that imported content of university curricula or models of analysis do not grasp the real problems of societies in the Global South. One example of how to respond to it, again from the University of Zimbabwe, is to bring a module of local inheritance into all degree programs.

New demands and pressures provide unique constraints but also unique opportunities for universities and scholars to develop university teaching and research. Research funders and development cooperation agencies should react to this looming backlash for development studies in social sciences in the South. It requires close interaction with public authorities from the local level to intergovernmental organizations, private stakeholders and academic associations. What is certain is that there are plenty of issues that can be clarified by development knowledge: the widening inequalities, international corruption, discontent amongst marginalized groups, simultaneous political apathy and new modes of radical mobilization by social media. This alone should be enough to justify the role of universities in these fields.

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the author:

Liisa Laakso is a senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden. She is an expert on world politics and international development cooperation. Her research interests include political science, African studies, democratisation of Africa, world politics, crisis management, foreign policy, EU-Africa policy and the global role of the European Union.

Together with Godon Crawford from Coventry University, UK, she will be convening the panelProduction and use of knowledge on governance and development: its role and contribution to struggles for peace, equality and social justice” at the 2020 EADI/ISS Conference.

Image Credit: Tony Carr on Flickr.

The ‘Economic Trauma’ that Zimbabwe faces by Susan Wyatt

Zimbabwe, once considered the breadbasket of Africa, now lies in an economic flux. A new term, ‘Economic Trauma’, is proposed in this blog to draw attention to the societal impacts of historical, perpetuating, and contextual lines of trauma that influence the current situation.  

We use language like economic hardship, economic turmoil, or economic crises, but seldom if at all do we talk about Economic Trauma. We think of trauma in terms of confronting direct, physical acts and their consequences. We recognise emotional and mental trauma as being damaging to a person’s psyche. However, bubbling away in Zimbabwe for some time is something I’ve recently experienced a first-hand assault in – Economic Trauma.

Quite literally one morning we woke up and the money in our bank account was valued at less than a quarter of its worth compared to the day before. Wait … what? How does that happen? Well, it’s complicated and depends on many variables. Most of these the average citizen doesn’t understand, not because they’re uneducated, but because it’s complex and layered between propaganda, historical and cultural narratives, speculation, ineffective processes, and fear. A lot of fear. So aren’t we just talking about bad economics here? The short answer is no. And here’s why.

Back in the 2000s the Zimbabwean economy went through an almost total collapse. There have been attempts at reform since, and in recent years improvements have been made. But in September and October this year (2018), there was episodic hyperinflation again due to various reasons including short-sighted government decisions, unwavering national debt, a fluctuating import/export market and, again, fear. Even though the economy was still better than it had been in recent years, Zimbabwean citizens had a severe reaction to the situation. There was panic buying, queues at fuel stations, and general despair across the nation. The people were experiencing Economic Trauma … but what is this, and how does it affect the economy?

Trauma is a circumstance that brings about a feeling that your safety has been violated and your trust broken. It causes anxiety, shame, intense reactions when triggered, ambivalence about hope for the future, and a sense of vulnerability and lack of control. These feelings or outcomes are currently exhibited in most citizens in Zimbabwe relating to the economy and decision made about it.  The hysterical stocking up of basic commodities. The dread at the news of daily rates and inflation. The deep anticipation and apprehension of what the next day brings—will there be relief, or more relentless, disappointing news?

If this extent of hyperinflation hadn’t been seen for a few years, why are the people across the country experiencing such extreme reactions? Well, they’re reacting based on how they felt when facing the dire economics of 2008 or the banking crisis of 2015.

It is collective trauma, with endless parallels to other recognised traumas. We see a societal level symptomatology akin to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A trauma that makes you personally invisible in the sea of economic trauma around you. It makes your strife and hardship inconsequential and, for the most part, ineffective. It de-identifies you in your own personal struggle because everyone is going through it, too. The ripple effects of economic trauma into one’s relationships, business interactions, community, and eventually one’s society are palpable. Yet we don’t see a human rights declaration that places value or weight on safeguarding individuals from the impacts of economic trauma (even though it’s manmade and therefore could and should be controllable.) Instead, we see headlines blaming the ‘economic migrant’ for searching for a better life. And, let’s be honest, wouldn’t you? It’s a much more passive and discrete way of stripping away a person’s dignity and self-determination. It allows for blame to be shifted and diluted away from the epicentre of where the trauma stems from and how it is perpetuated.

The Zimbabwe situation, like many other old colonies and young countries, is in its entirety a complex one. By no means can it be unpacked and understood in one blog post. But in an effort to understand what we see happening in front of us, and to unashamedly open a dialogue to facilitate healing within our societies, I offer up three simplified points as navigational milestones relating to this current economic trauma. Although written as separate points, they require interrelated projects:

  1. Historical lines of Economic Trauma:

Colonisation, tribal conflicts, historical disempowerment, and intergenerational trauma are all significant contributors to our current situation. There is an incredible need for different avenues of reconciliation and healing, inclusive of pathways into economic opportunities through structural reforms to rectify the loss experienced by the previous generations.

  1. Perpetuating lines of Economic Trauma:

Aid, investments, development funds, and international monetary systems are structured to advantage the western, corporate business model, or are used for political gain. They are in fact harming and taking advantage of our economy. What we need are mutually beneficial profit-sharing agreements, business and environmental accountability, and safeguarded local investment and development, inclusive of pan-African business, and social support structures to facilitate resilience.

  1. Contextual lines of Economic Trauma:

Understanding the factors that have and continue to contribute to our turbulent situation is critical. But at some stage we need to take control of our own healing. We can no longer blame everyone else for all our current issues. Current-day corruption, lack of accountability or transparency, and unmet basic human needs are prevalent. We cannot heal as a nation until we are all healed.

It’ll never be a quick and easy recovery, but it’s what is needed in Zimbabwe. Without it, our economy continues to suffer, and in turn, so do we. We cannot do one type of healing or recovery without the other. We cannot expect people to participate in reconciliation programs, anti-corruption programs and development programs when they are struggling economically. And we cannot expect the country to make a sustained economic recovery with unhealed trauma’s lurking. They are the two sides of the same coin that is Economic Trauma.

susanAbout the author:

Susan Wyatt is Zimbabwean born and raised. She is a Mental Health Occupational Therapist, with a Master’s degree in Anthropology and Development, specialising in Conflict and Development. Her expertise is in transcultural mental health, reconciliation, peace building and development practices. Susan is the director of Tana Consulting, which currently operates out of Harare, Zimbabwe.