By Tawanda Majoni
HARARE—ONE thing that the “new dispensation” of President Emmerson Mnangagwa will always be remembered for with frustration and contempt is its clumsy articulation of policy.You would have thought that the musketeers who grabbed power from Robert Mugabe in 2017 had learnt solid lessons from their long tenure in government since 1980. Of course, they know where they were messing it up together with Mugabe, but that knowledge hasn’t translated into lessons or wisdom.
When Mnangagwa delivered his inauguration speech in late 2017, it was clear that he was familiar with all the bad things they had done together from 1980. He talked nicely about self-defeating preoccupation with power at the expense of economic and social progress. He talked about the need for unity. He talked about the need to root out corruption and embrace the international community. He even talked about human rights and freedom as if he had discovered them ahead of George Washington, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
But, as they say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Mugabe was cleverer with policy than his successors. In other words, they are poorer with statecraft. You understand him better now when, in his twilight, he insisted that he couldn’t think of anyone among his lieutenants to succeed him. Of course, he was part of the problem because he made and surrounded himself with the clueless company to perpetuate his rule.
From the time the current administration took over, all we have had are inconsistent, contradictory, half-hearted, hurried and poorly packaged policy measures. And because Mugabe’s successors grabbed power for the sake of power and never the people, those policies have been accompanied by unbelievably shoddy, rustic and uncouth implementation.
Take the case of the administration’s responses to Covid-19, particularly as they relate to the latest lockdown measures announced by the president a few days ago. The new measures, as he had already warned, were purportedly to curb the steep spike in the Covid-19 caseload. We had well below 10 cases and one death when the lockdown was first decreed at the end of March. We now have more than 2 000 positive cases and 26 deaths. That would make a good case for the re-introduction of strict measures after a gradual relaxation that we saw in more than a month.
The latest measures have all the hue and cry of a noble response to the spiralling cases. They address the need to restrict movement of people. None-working people as if there is much formal employment to talk about in Zimbabwe must stay at home except when they have to go and fetch food and water (at the run-down boreholes of course). People must always wear their masks way up to the full nose. Businesses must revert back to the 8am to 3pm business hours. Blah, blah, blah.
But if you want to know the real motive behind the latest lockdown measures, look out for the small print. President Mnangagwa said something that many seem to have taken for granted, in spite of its telling message. The soldiers and police will be deployed in full force to implement the lockdown. That’s the first major problem.
Normally, an administration that is supposed to be civilian must not be that quick to rely on the military and quasi-military to enforce its policies. There must always be other ways of ensuring that people adhere to policy instructions. They didn’t get battalions onto the streets in 2008 when there was a cholera outbreak. But the outbreak was finally contained. The interventions that were adopted then were completely civilian, technocratic and humanitarian. Besides, there is no evidence in the history of epidemiology to suggest that the military is too useful in fighting a community pandemic. Soldiers can only lend a supporting hand to civilian efforts outside a war zone.
That also means that the introduction of a curfew was ill-informed. Ordering a curfew sends out negative perceptions about the government in power. Curfews were a common thing during the colonial seventies. That was because the apartheid musketeers didn’t like the idea of black people moving around freely and participating in the liberation struggle. Curfews were meant to curtail freedom of movement and association and give the racist regime enough space to control people, for power’s sake. It was the same thing in the early eighties when Mugabe’s administration also used a colonial law, the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act, to suppress movement during the self-made Gukurahundi crisis.
There are scientific reasons to be sceptical of the new curfew, too. There is no proof, whatsoever, to support the assumption that banning movement of people from dusk to dawn, as is the case now, is what has been taking Covid-19casesupwithsuchenergy.It must be remembered that nightclubs remained banned even as the administration was loosening the lockdown measures. The level of movement at night among people was not that big.
Granted, that mobility could have, in a way, contributed to new infections, but we haven’t heard a single thing from the Health ministry or such other people giving statistics towards that. And it’s easy to understand why it’s like that. Public interventions to contain the spread of Covid-19 have hardly paid any attention to the communities, outside the weary deployment of the odd cop to shopping centres. But then, these cops also got busy trading money on the black market instead of enforcing social distancing and ensuring that people moved around with their masks on.
There is another heavy-hand hint about the president’s latest measures. He warned that people who would engage in actions that undermine the measures would be severely punished. Well, nothing wrong with that if you limit yourself to the surface of the statement. Just that “severely” was an unnecessary word to use considering that the decree was accompanied by a statutory instrument that makes it possible to prosecute offenders.
It’s absurd, scary and weird to think of courts as places where people go to be “severely punished”, so there must be another reason for the choice of that phrase. We are so much used to the police and army using the phrase, so there is something spooky about it. No wonder, therefore, that people are already speculating that the new lockdown measures were made with critics of the current establishment in mind.
There are plans to stage nationwide protests on July 31. The protests are against corruption, which the president has already classified as one of the biggest threats we are facing, pretty like he almost believed himself on that. Now, the regime is spooked at the prospect of people pouring onto the streets and then giving it another unsavoury chance to shoot itself in the foot by getting roughshod with the protesters. But then, pouring into the streets would naturally violate the lockdown rules in more than one way. So, before you start thinking of being part of the protest, you must remember of how you will be “severely punished”.
Add to that the fact that there is a curfew. Most protests have been planned at night. If you can’t move at night, you can hardly plot a protest. And, if you can’t plot a coup, you then you can’t stage a meaningful protest. And the thinking seems to be that the curfew means no movement in town. Why this preoccupation with the city centre? Naughty developments feed the suspicion that the new lockdown measures are a self-preserving measure by the dispensation. Did you notice that, on Friday, people were being turned away from time as the courts were hearing the bail application by Hopewell Chin’ono, the journalist they arrested for exposing corruption? People were being told to come back into town on Saturday. For sure, there was no overzealousness at the roadblocks on Saturday, after hopewell was remanded in custody to August 7. And cellular networks were so bad on Friday too.
In any case, the planners in government are missing the bigger picture. If you look closely, the new lockdown measures are mostly seized with limiting people’s movement, particularly in town. That’s a simplistic and disturbing thing to do. Yes, unlimited movement of people will naturally contribute to the spread of the virus, but has the administration ever paused to scientifically study why the Covid-19 cases are spiking?
The narrative we have heard all this time along is that most of the cases have been identified in quarantine centres which mostly house returning Zimbabweans, while, of late, we hear that community-based infections are on the rise. But we haven’t heard what government is doing to ensure that the quarantine centres are properly and effectively run, considering the fact that a lot of cross-infection is happening there due to poor management of the facilities.
Government seems to be conveniently ignoring the truth that the centres have become a new hive of corruption as officials take bribes, bring in sub-standard materials and look away as the facilities fast turn into brothels. It also seems oblivious to the fact that soldiers, law enforcers and port officials are taking bribes to let in border jumpers and coffins carrying bodies of Covid-19 victims alike. It’s not telling us that it’s letting apostolic sects gather in their thousands even as crowds are limited to 50.
The main point is, go back to the drawing board, do sensible policies and then take good action rather simply adopting hardcore measures that won’t work or are just meant to curtail people’s freedoms so as to preserve the ruling elite.
Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development for Development Trust (IDT) and can be contacted on tmajoni@ idt.org.zw.
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