Protests over failing economy roil Zimbabwe

Africa | Analysts say frustration could lead to President Robert Mugabe’s ouster
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 7/07/16, 10:55 am

Zimbabweans on Wednesday took to the streets and stayed home from work to protest unpaid salaries and the country’s failing economy. Analysts say the rare outcry, triggered by a social media movement, could escalate if the government continues to ignore the protesters’ demands.

Banks and businesses in major Zimbabwean towns shut down amid the riots. Nurses and teachers, who work for the government, went on strike to protest their unpaid salaries for June. Protesters threw stones at police and burned tires in the middle of the streets. Security officials arrested more than 100 people across the country.

President Robert Mugabe, 92, has ruled the southern African country for the past 36 years. The ruling Zanu-PF party has faced longtime accusations of corruption and mismanaged funds. Zimbabwe began using American dollars as its currency in 2009 when hyperinflation rendered its own currency unusable. But a shortage of dollars has tripped up the country’s economy. Many workers remain unpaid, and the government recently released most of its nonviolent prisoners to save money. In a bid to boost the local economy, the government blocked the import of many goods from South Africa. But that angered people even more.

“There are no jobs in Zimbabwe to talk about,” Maunganidze Chaurura, one of the protest leaders, told CAJ News Africa. “There is no industry to absorb university graduates, when we go to South Africa to order goods to sell, they confiscate them. … That’s the root cause of these protests.”

The demonstrations started in April on social media, when pastor Evan Mawarire posted a YouTube video of himself draped in the country’s flag and voicing his frustrations with the current administration. The #ThisFlag hashtag gave others leeway to express similar concerns on social media, anger and frustration that eventually spilled into the streets.

“Zimbabweans have not been able to speak out against almost anything because of fear,” Mawarire told Germany’s broadcasting service, Deutsche Welle. “In past times, people have been beaten, jailed and some have even been abducted for taking certain stands.”

The government appealed to health workers to return to work, promising to pay their pending salaries by tomorrow. But a lot more issues still need to be resolved. Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba described the protests as “criminal,” and an emergency security team warned it would identify and arrest the protest’s initiators. The government cracked down on social media, especially WhatsApp, and threatened to trace and prosecute anyone who posted subversive messages online.

But the government will only escalate the demonstrations if it refuses to listen to the largely peaceful protests, said Maryjane Neube, executive director of Transparency International Zimbabwe, an anti-corruption nonprofit.

“This is a frustrated and to some degree, angry society,” Neube said. “The protesting is important in registering the people’s voice, and it will be good if the state paused and listened, and not perpetuate violence against the society.”

Other African countries are facing similar protests. South African President Jacob Zuma, in office for seven years, has resisted calls from several civil society groups across the country asking for him to step down over corruption accusations. But Zimbabweans are frustrated to a point where the protests could lead to a major political shift in the country, said Lloyd Kuyeva, director of the Zimbabwean Human Rights NGO Forum.

“If this is sustained, I believe it can reach those levels were the current leader might have to consider stepping down,” Kuyeva said. “People have really had enough.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

Read more from this writer