In early-1980s Zimbabwe, then and current President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party was in the post-independence throes of eliminating opposition parties. The main opposition was the Zapu party, supported in significant numbers by the Ndebele tribe. On the other side stood the Shona tribe, many members of which supported Mugabe.
So the Mugabe-directed campaign of political extermination, assisted by North Korea-trained Zimbabwean army units, quickly became an ethnic massacre of over 20,000 souls that some have called a genocide.
On June 3 in Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Smith and Todd Moss made the convincing case that Zimbabwe is coming perilously close to another human-rights atrocity—one that it is likely to occur in the next year.
The signs of terror
Citing a report by the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Smith and Moss show how over the last several months, Zimbabwe has been checking off all the indicators of a country on the brink of atrocities.
Human-rights activists and political opponents have been abducted by government forces, some in broad daylight. Attacks on supporters of opposition parties have reportedly proliferated. Public discourse now includes pseudo-religious talk of “cleansing” the country—by one of the primary architects of the 1980 massacres. The economy, after a brief rally during the “unity government" with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party, is in free fall again. Finally, the 92-year-old Mugabe has no clear successor. Without a functioning democracy, this adds an additional element of instability, or so the theory goes.
“Monitors of mass atrocity risk typically watch for ethnic exclusion, hate speech, and indicators of political and economic stress,” wrote Smith and Moss. “The greatest indicator of a country’s atrocity risk is whether it has suffered from similar events in the past. All of these factors are currently, and ominously, present in Zimbabwe.”
Smith and Moss are hardly alone in their anticipation of bad things happening in Zimbabwe. George Ward wrote a “Contingency Planning Memo” for the Council on Foreign Relations, which declared that “the risk factors associated with political instability in Zimbabwe are growing” and that “political instability and potential violence could threaten Zimbabwe in the coming 12 to 18 months.”
Social media speaks
While those analyzing Zimbabwe's volatile politics from afar are focusing on what they see as trends and where those trends might lead, those at home in Zimbabwe are face-to-face with the aspects of political in-fighting, resource shortages, and the frustration that creates those trends in the first place.
While no one we found was warning of large-scale violence on the horizon (possibly not the most healthy thing to do, anyway), they were frequently focused on the contributing factors.
On Twitter, Tawanda Henry proclaimed, “Zimbabwe needs big-tent politics to once and for all vanquish the beast that is Zanu-Pf from power.” Meanwhile, David Coltart, an opposition senator, decried the lengths to which he sees Mugabe going to capture his seat.
Harare-based entrepreneur Sir Nigel registered his belief that the electorate is no longer impressed with independence-struggle credentials.Welshman Ncube, president of the MDC, believes the time has come for non-participation. On the other side of the aisle, Saviour Kusukuwere, “political commissar” of the ruling Zanu-PF, posted a photo of irrigation equipment. Mugabe’s repossession of white-owned farms and redistribution to his supporters turned a country that used to be known as “the breadbasket of Africa” into a dustbowl. Journalist Ranga Mberi, who recently published an essay on his Tumblr about Zimbabwe's obsession with ultimatums, posted a quote that feels like a line of dialogue from a Paolo Bacigalupi novel.
Author Rabison Shumba reminded his fellow Zimbabweans that the economic trials they are enduring are even more deadly down the economic ladder.Our research found that Zimbabweans are not thinking out loud on social media about a possible upcoming atrocity. It could be they do not feel they need to wait to for one, since the country has endured so much upheaval and so many challenges over the past decades.
If you are in the midst of political fighting, malfunctioning elections, food and electricity shortages, and in the midst of a poisonous scramble for succession, maybe you don’t have the inclination to see all those things as precursors to something more; perhaps the identification of trends is somewhat frustrated by the demands of living.
Photo via Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe/Wikimedia Commons (PD)