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Freedom in the World: Zimbabwe 2006
January 24, 2007

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Zimbabwe's descent into the ranks of the world's most repressive states continued unabated in 2005, the result of a significant decline in both political rights and civil liberties for Zimbabweans. The government of long-time president Robert Mugabe persisted in cracking down on independent media, civil society, and political opponents. Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANUPF) won an overwhelming victory in a deeply flawed parliamentary election held in March, allowing the passage of a heavy-handed Constitutional Amendment Bill in September. Beginning in May 2005, the government ordered the destruction of tens of thousands of shanty dwellings and street stalls in urban townships across the country. The implementation of this policy-labeled Operation Murambatsvina -left an estimated 700,000 people homeless, deprived of their livelihood, or both, and adversely affected some 2.4 million additional people. Low voter turnout and a severely fractured opposition marked elections to a new Senate in November; ZANU-PF virtually swept the elections, fortifying its control of the already pliant legislature. The country's economic crisis worsened, with rampant inflation, massive unemployment, near expulsion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and potentially severe shortages of basic foodstuffs.

In 1965, a white-minority regime led by Prime Minister Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain in what was then South Rhodesia; the resultant state of Rhodesia was considered illegal and was sanctioned extensively by the United Nations. Sanctions, Anglo-American diplomatic pressure, and a guerrilla war led by black nationalist groups contributed to the end of white-minority rule in 1979 and an independent Zimbabwe in 1980. Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), brought to power in a relatively democratic election, have ruled the country since then.

For a few years, Zimbabwe was relatively stable, although from 1983 to 1987, the government violently suppressed resistance from the country's largest minority group, the Ndebele, to dominance by Mugabe's majority ethnic Shona group. Severe human rights abuses-including the deaths of between 10,000 and 20,000 civil-ians-accompanied the struggle, which ended with an accord that brought Ndebele leaders into the government. The 1990s saw widespread civil unrest spurred by opposition to Mugabe's government; in 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), an alliance between trade unionists and other civil society groups, was created to lead the political opposition.

In February 2000, the MDC helped defeat a referendum on a draft constitution that would have greatly expanded executive power. Parliamentary elections in June 2000 were deemed by observers to be fundamentally flawed prior to balloting. Candidates and supporters of the MDC faced violence and intimidation, including the use of rape as a weapon. A constitutional provision empowering Mugabe and allied traditional leaders to appoint one-fifth of the members of parliament helped to further ensure ZANU-PF's majority in the legislature. Voter registration, identification procedures, and tabulation of results were judged highly irregular by independent observers. The state-controlled media offered limited coverage of opposition viewpoints, and ZANU-PF used substantial state resources in campaigning. After the poll, Mugabe issued a pardon for thousands of people-most associated with ZANU-PF-for crimes committed during the election campaign, including assault, arson, forced evictions, kidnapping, torture, rape, and attempted murder. According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, the rights of more than 18,000 people were violated.

In March 2002, after months of political violence aimed at MDC supporters, Mugabe claimed victory in a deeply flawed presidential election that failed to meet minimum international standards for legitimacy. The election pitted Mugabe against the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai, a popular trade union leader. Following the election, the government was subjected to travel and arms sales sanctions by the United States and the European Union and was suspended from the Commonwealth. Mass protests and strikes called by Tsvangirai in 2003 were crushed by security forces.

Parliamentary by-elections held in 2002 and 2003 were marred by violence and intimidation against the MDC, which nonetheless won the polls in two districts near the capital, Highfield and Kuwadzana. Party members were prevented from undertaking normal campaign activities and were detained, beaten, and harassed. The MDC announced in August 2004 that it would suspend its participation in parliamentary and local elections because it believed there was no hope of a fair poll. Partially as a result, in September 2004, ZANU-PF increased its parliamentary majority after the MDC boycotted a series of by-elections.

Prior to the March 2005 parliamentary elections, the government enacted two new electoral laws-the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) Act and the Electoral Act-in order to adhere to Southern African Development Community (SADC) protocols. However, the ostensibly independent ZEC was not only highly partisan but also did not begin operating until two months before the election, leaving much of the electoral process to already discredited institutions. Furthermore, despite some improvements, the Electoral Act granted the ZEC powers to employ security forces, retained biased residency requirements for voters, denied most expatriates the right to vote, and created an Electoral Court staffed by a deeply compromised judiciary. The MDC did participate in the March 2005 parliamentary poll but won only 41 of 120 elected seats in the parliament; ZANU-PF garnered 78 elected seats, which, along with the 30 seats effectively appointed by Mugabe, gave the ruling party a two-thirds majority and the ability to amend the constitution.

Despite the enactment of new electoral laws designed to meet the democratic protocols of the SADC and a decrease in political violence, the run-up to and execution of the elections did not allow for a free and fair contest. Reports by local and international human rights groups asserted that MDC candidates and supporters were subjected to violent intimidation and harassment-including arbitrary arrest- throughout the country, and were restricted from campaigning openly in rural areas dominated by ZANU-PF (particularly parts of Mashonaland and Manicaland). Security forces and ZANU-PF youth militias also restricted opposition assemblies and rallies in Harare and Bulawayo. As in previous elections, access to government food stocks was used as a political weapon, denied to some MDC supporters and promised to citizens in exchange for votes. In addition, according to Human Rights Watch, "the processes of registering voters, delimiting electoral districts, and providing for inspection of voters' rolls were conducted in a non-transparent and discriminatory way." Though the opposition's access to the media had improved from that of previous elections, equal and fair coverage was denied. Finally, among international monitoring groups, only African monitors believed to be sympathetic to ZANU-PF were allowed to observe the elections.

While observers from the SADC, the African Union, and South Africa deemed the election reflective of the will of the people, local observers such as the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network were very critical of the elections. The MDC claimed to have discovered major discrepancies in vote tallies in over 30 constituencies. Citing 11 of these constituencies and claiming to have won 94 elected seats, the MDC challenged the ZEC's results and threatened a court battle; however, no legal petition was filed. According to the International Crisis Group, the government escalated its crackdown on opposition supporters and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) after the election.

Mugabe and ZANU-PF leveraged their two-thirds parliamentary majority to enact a 22-clause Constitutional Amendment Bill in September 2005. The bill is far-reach-ing in both its scope and its potential to further undermine basic rights in Zimbabwe. Among other restrictions, the bill abolishes freehold property titles by nationalizing all land, denies landowners any legal recourse regarding expropriated land, brings all schools under state control, and empowers the government to seize the passports or travel documents of people deemed a threat to national interests. Furthermore, the bill reintroduced an upper legislative house, the Senate; Mugabe had abolished the original Senate in 1987 along with the post of prime minister. Elections to the new Senate-consisting of 50 directly elected seats, 6 presidential appointees, and 10 traditional chiefs-were held in November 2005 and resulted in ZANU-PF's securing 59 out of 66 seats; the MDC, deeply split over participating in the election, fielded only 26 candidates and won 7 seats. Only 15 to 20 percent of voters turned out for the election; the Senate-estimated to cost about $60 million annually-is widely considered to be a superfluous body created to reward Mugabe's supporters within ZANU-PF.

The question of who will succeed Mugabe, aged 81 and pledged to retire in 2008, has proven to be a source of contention within ZANU-PF. In December 2004, Water Minister Joyce Mujuru was named vice president, and Information Minister Jonathan Moyo was sacked after campaigning against Mujuru at a ZANU-PF congress. Moyo was allied with Parliamentary Speaker Emmerson Mnangagwa, the pre-congress favorite for the vice president position.

Operation Murambatsvina (variously translated as "Operation Restore Order" and "Operation Clear the Filth") began on May 19, 2005, with unannounced police actions against informal vendors in and around Harare, including the immediate arrest of some 10,000 people and the destruction of many street stalls and informal dwellings. The operation soon spread to almost every urban area and rural business center in Zimbabwe, resulting in the destruction (mostly via bulldozer) of tens of thousands of informal businesses and dwellings-including entire suburbs of Harare (for example, Hatcliff Extension, Mbare, Joshua Nkomo, Porta Farm, and White Cliff Farm) and Bulawayo (Killarney and Ngozi Mine).

Domestic and international human rights groups accused the security forces of arresting and fining people arbitrarily and using excessive force-at least three people were directly killed. First moved into transit camps outside of the cities, many displaced residents were forced to return to the rural areas "from which they came," as designated on national identity cards. According to the United Nations, approximately 700,000 people were made homeless by the operation, and another 2.4 million people have been affected directly or indirectly. Wintry conditions, large transportation expenses, lack of medicines, and national food shortages exacerbated the crises faced by the displaced, particularly children, the old and infirm, and those suffering from HIV/AIDS. In addition, the government actively inhibited civic groups and aid agencies from gaining access to the displaced.

The motivation behind Operation Murambatsvina is a topic of debate. The government defended the action as necessary to restore law and order to the country's cities by enforcing licensing requirements and city by-laws, and by removing sources of "illegal activities." Government officials announced ambitious (and as yet stalled) plans to build new housing projects for the urban poor in place of the destroyed dwellings. In addition, because only about 25 percent of Zimbabweans are employed in the formal sector, and the informal sector and parallel markets are estimated to account for some 60 percent of Zimbabwe's gross domestic product (GDP), the operation deprived the formal banking sector of a substantial amount of scarce foreign exchange. However, many of the destroyed vendor stalls, flea markets, and informal settlements had in fact been approved by government officials. As a result, some analysts believe that the operation was intended to exert control over urban areas that had proven to be MDC strongholds during past elections and the source of antigovernment agitation. However, many of the townships targeted by the operation were built on land confiscated from evicted white landowners and populated with ZANU-PF supporters.

The government's seizures of white-owned farmland, which began in 2000, precipitated the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy, particularly in the commercial farming sector that accounted for the majority of the country's exports, foreign exchange, and jobs. Much of the seized land has gone to ZANU-PF officials, Mugabe loyalists, and war veterans without a farming background. As a result, the country's GDP has fallen over 30 percent since the land reform began, which has made Zimbabwe one of the world's fastest shrinking economies. Unemployment exceeds 70 percent, and in September 2005, inflation reached a peak of 360 percent, one of the highest rates in the world. That same month, Zimbabwe was nearly expelled from the IMF because it was $295 million in arrears on a $4.5 billion loan; however, a last-minute payment of $120 million-officially (and questionably) gleaned from export revenues and foreign exchange purchases-staved off expulsion.

The government controls the prices of many major commodities and food staples, and state-linked companies dominate many sectors, which leads to shortages of key imports, most notably fuel. In September 2004, Mugabe announced that the government would seize half of the country's private mining companies, and the 2005 Constitutional Amendment Bill nationalized all land. The country's dire political and economic situation has resulted in the recent emigration of hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans.

In November 2005, the UN World Food Program warned that more than 4 million of the country's 12 million people require emergency food aid; Zimbabwe-once one of Africa's major sources of agricultural exports-began a massive program to import 1.8 million tons of maize in July of that year. While the government has historically blamed food shortages on droughts, Deputy Agricultural Minister Sylvester Nguni told a November meeting of the Zimbabwe Farmers' Union that distributing seized land to incompetent farmers was also to blame. Party officials have manipulated the dispersal of food aid, withholding relief from suspected opposition supporters. Fears of food shortages have led many urban dwellers to ignore a government prohibition on growing crops in urban areas. Severe shortages of drugs and equipment have pushed hospitals and clinics close to ruin. Infant mortality rates have risen, and the resource-starved health system cannot cope with an HIV epi-demic-one of the worst in the world-that has infected one in four adults.

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