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The cost of a rogue state managing chaotic demonstrations

If we cannot question how on 14 January 2019 a protester against fuel price hikes of 130% returned home with food groceries and other basic commodities, and if we cannot challenge how professional security personnel assigned to restore and maintain order from a demonstration that had gone out of hand ended up raping young school girls, we have reached unprecedented levels of moral decadence.

The problem with the Zimbabwean state

The real problem with the Zimbabwe government is that it does not have 40 years’ worth of experience but has merely repeated itself every year for 40 years. Overt tribalism and cronyism have been the cornerstone of State power in spite of their obvious shortcomings.

There is no evidence of learning from past events. We have a generation of politicians and a political party that feels a sense of entitlement since ‘delivering the country from colonial rule’. These people selectively forget the public contribution to the liberation war.

The aforementioned sense of entitlement is the foundation of the major handicap which is the failure of the state to rise above party politics. One cannot discern where government power begins and where ZANU PF influence ends. ZANU PF is government, and government is ZANU PF. The government is less motivated to protect citizens who challenge ZANU PF manifestos and ZANU PF will never tolerate protests against the government, if not carefully choreographed and controlled by ZANU PF machinery itself.

If you witnessed how ‘friendly’ the army was to the celebrating public during the ‘military coup, but not coup’ in 17 November 2017, and how brutal the same army was towards the same public in the 1 August 2018 election results protests, and against fuel price hikes protesters mid-January 2019, you will appreciate my point.

Issue of a conflicted security organ

The army exists to protect the country from foreign threat, its duty is to disable and destroy any such threat; the police role is to preserve internal peace and order. There are clear legal grounds on which armed forces can be called upon to help, not usurp the police force, in dealing with citizen disobedience and real threat to lives.

It must be clear that security organs do not exist to protect ZANU PF or any political party interests. Years of blurred boundaries between the Zimbabwean state and the ZANU PF party have led to the misappropriation of state power and resources, including the police and the armed forces. These security organs have been effectively transformed into ZANU PF militias who will go out of their way to disable and destroy unarmed citizens with impunity for daring to exercise their right to question government decisions and actions.

The problematic politics of patronage

In post-independence Zimbabwe, it is essential to know to which tribe, or which subgroup of which tribe, the president belongs. Drawing from this single piece of information, one can trace the lines of patronage and allegiance that define the state of Zimbabwe. One’s success or safety and security within the Zimbabwean political space is dependent on their connection with the ‘right tribe’ or the ‘correct’ ZANU PF faction.

Traditionally, ZANU PF, has successfully created Shona privilege and duly marketed itself as the ethnic Shona people’s patron of their economic, social and political safety and security from Ndebele threat. No wonder for the duration of the independence, ethnic Shona people have supported or condoned most, if not all, of ZANU PF’s interventions in Matabeleland – no matter how unjust they have been.

Mashonaland’s support of ZANU PF bears no objective political foundation but is merely tribal patronage. Legislators from that region have given the ZANU PF government unquestionable authority to manipulate the constitution to a point of transferring all effective power from all other organs of the state to the executive. Consequent to that, the whole country is terrorised by the too powerful State and suddenly Joshua Nkomo who questioned ZANU PF’s undemocratic manoeuvres in the 1980s and 1990s is raised to a Zimbabwean hero status from the ashes of a Ndebele dissident!

Listen to interviews of Joshua Nkomo and his robust political views on Mugabe’s ill-advised politics in the 1980s.

Joshua Nkomo being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, a BBC journalist
Joshua Nkomo on Ndebele and Shona manufactured division

Zimbabwean state attitude to protest against it

ZANU PF has always craved for a one-party state; it is an intolerant and violent political organisation whose only response to dissent is extremities of violence, brutality, ‘disappearance’ and gruesome murders of opponents and dissenters; its undemocratic nature is deep hence the Zimbabwean state is not known for its tolerance to any protest that questions its authority.

We have a government that treats all protest as terrorism; this is highly problematic as it effectively gives government an easy route of suppressing protest activity and creating an enormous burden for people who want to go out and express their concerns.

The recent heavy-handed response to protests comes as no surprise, such an approach has been the emblem of the ‘independent’ Zimbabwe. As in the recent aggressive response to protests, there has been a systemic failure by the state to uphold the normative values of democracy when the public violated them.

Zimbabwean government’s brutal handling of protests against fuel price hikes

Poorly planned demonstrations

The history of Zimbabwean demonstrations shows that they get little success; unfortunately, at times deservedly so – most are disorganised and distracted. However, this does not distance from the fact demonstrations are a critical tool for highlighting and externalising internal injustice to the international community.

People reserve the right to be angry, but it is not always best to suspend reason in preference for emotions and call upon a highly emotional mob to respond to an irrational state; while spontaneity may be necessary as such action provides a valuable sense of surprise to the less prepared authorities, it can be equally risky in a lawless country like Zimbabwe.

A demonstration is not just a set of defiant behaviours but a set of carefully coordinated human expressions of disaffection. If we do not plan demonstrations properly, the practical result is to encourage disorganised and errant behaviour and activities that result in the alienation of the public and further entrenchment of the very systems we are fighting – state lack of accountability.  

That said, chaotic demonstrations cannot be an excuse for government brutality against unarmed citizens; the government has a duty to protect citizens, maintain safety and security to ensure protests are as peaceful as possible and criminals who try to take advantage of the situation are duly dealt with.    

The state has often used the distracted and violent protests to justify brutality and a militarised operation by state actors against citizens. Dictators will readily optimise loose ends and opportunities to use disproportionate force to crush dissent.


Demonstrations are a vital tool in democratic society for citizens to express their disaffection, be it with the government or private sector or global institutions. It is just as important that protests are well organised, focused and objectives clearly communicated to participants. Often, permission is sort from government to ensure appropriate safety and security measures are in place during protests. The last thing we want is the infiltration of otherwise genuine causes by rogue elements and ending up unknowingly collaborating with mobsters, gangsters and engaging in a war for all against all, losing focus and credibility in the process.


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