Zimbabwe protests – policing needs to place peace before the law

Shameful as it is, the manner in which the Zimbabwean state has been dealing with civilian protests recently is neither a surprise nor expected to be the last. This government has always adopted a ‘by any means necessary’ approach when it comes to securing its power. These attempts at achieving peace through force rather than through dialogue, fair and peaceful means have never been genuinely put to the test.

Often falling on deaf ears, our argument in Matabeleland has been that Zimbabwean government attempts to resolve political challenges by talking to itself and not the victims of its actions is an unacceptable strategy and an approach directly linked with the state’s poor and worsening relationship with Matabeleland. What the ethnic Shona biased Zimbabwean government has yet to appreciate is what it means to be a Matabeleland citizen when faced by law enforcement agents and/ or public workers operating under laws and attitudes drawn from everywhere else except Matabeleland socio-cultural systems.

We need to tell the whole truth that is, the truth without deception, if we (Matabeleland and Mashonaland) are to collectively work on a long-term political system that will oversee the safety, freedom and liberty of all citizens of the modern state of Zimbabwe.

First, we need to acknowledge the link between the current abuse of unarmed civilian protestors by the state to the unchecked executive powers resulting from the surrender of power to the executive by all the other government organs in the 1980s.

Second, accept that when state agents abuse citizens on the basis of their ethnicity, public confidence in the law enforcement agents and law enforcement is eroded and that makes everyone unsafe.

Third, we cannot ignore the impact of ZANU PF tribalism that deliberately created a wedge between Matabeleland and Mashonaland, gave a false sense of superiority and safety to ethnic Shona people, devalued and dehumanised ethnic Ndebeles dubiously turning every Matabeleland citizen, including unborn babies, into dissidents to justify their state sanctioned but illegal killing.

Sad as it sounds, many of our ethnic Shona colleagues have bought into the ZANU PF prejudices about ethnic Ndebele people, accommodated instead of condemning injustice against Matabeleland. To this day, many ethnic Shona people remain objectively and emotionally connected to ZANU PF’s distorted worldview of ethnic Ndebele people as the threat to Zimbabwean independence and the way of life of ethnic Shona people; it presents ZANU PF as the only protector of all ethnic Shona people’s rights. Within this context, the protection of Matabeleland rights is not perceived to be a priority of this current government; unfortunately, the other reality is that everyone’s rights are threatened under this government.

Abuse of power by the executive should not be ignored on the basis of the target of that abuse. Allowing or excusing any injustice for whatever reason leaves the door wide open for generalised injustice to force its way in. The majority ethnic Shona people who made excuses for the ZANU PF led government’s Gukurahundi atrocities in the 1980s never saw the possibility of the same executive turning its guns against them.

The recent harsh state clamp down on protestors in major cities and towns is a valuable lesson to all that ZANU PF only cares about its hold on power and not the people. It is its insatiable love of power that has made impossible the power of love to take control of our society. From its formation, ZANU PF has never believed in peaceful means to achieve political goals. It comes as no surprise that the party has not invested in genuinely peace oriented policing options; the ZANU PF government has always been swift to revert to violence anytime its authority is tested.

It is hardly a surprise that Zimbabwean policing adopts a hard and uncompromising stance to protests – a stance that prioritises enforcing the law regardless of the consequences for keeping the peace; this is evidenced in the brutal beatings and indiscriminate arrests of protestors in the last few weeks. We are witnesses to Zimbabwean police aggressively chasing and beating up civilians for merely raising anti-government placards. Such violent intervention makes peaceful demonstrations impossible thereby increasing the inevitability of violent revolution. It is not the demonstrations that are in breach of peace in the country but the state’s inability to handle conflict that is compromising security.

Zimbabwean police indiscriminately beating protestors

36 years into independence what we require is a measured, more conciliatory style of policing protests that emphasises keeping the peace. When keeping the peace is prioritised police will justifiably only make arrests in a protest situation where the offences are significant and on balance the risk to life and property in not making the arrest outweighs the risk to life and property associated with making the arrest.

We do need to review the policing within Zimbabwe. There needs to be a clear separation of powers between the police and the government. Admittedly, the police represent the coercive arm of government yet I believe the way forward would be for this arm to be operationally independent of the state if they are to be operationally fair and efficient. For that to happen, ZANU PF creed should not determine the legislation that creates the laws that guide police operations. Instead of living up to ZANU PF scripts, policing should comply with the law, be accountable to all and respect human rights of all citizens.

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