Doug Coltart, a vocal activist and human rights lawyer based in Harare, speaks to Okayafrica about what's currently happening in Zimbabwe.
A few days ago, the Zimbabwean government issued a directive to major cellular network providers Econet and TelOne to disable the internet and all access to social media. The directive was an attempt to prevent any information from spreading outside the country's borders with regards to the nationwide protests which have led to the deaths of at least five people and the injury of at least twenty-five others.
Okayafrica spoke to prominent Zimbabwean activist and human rights lawyer Doug Coltart who is currently based in Harare, the capital city, about the status of the nationwide protests which have now entered into their fourth day. Several Zimbabweans have been killed and numerous others wounded in what has turned into a deadly showdown between frustrated citizens and armed forces. The 2016 #ThisFlag movement leader Evan Mawarire was arrested and is still being detained. Yesterday, Zimbabwe's opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) made a plea for South Africa to intervene in the escalating crisis.
Coltart speaks of the horrific brutality being unleashed by Zimbabwean soldiers and police, tales of Zimbabwean citizens who have been dragged from their homes and arrested whilst President Emmerson Mnangagwa has still not released any official statement.
Doug, can you just give us an overview of what's currently happening right now?
Sure. So for the past few days there has been a national shutdown or stay-away called for by the CPU, which is the largest trade union in Zimbabwe. People stayed away to protest against the deteriorating economic situation in the country. Some people did go out into the streets and demonstrated as well.
In response to this, there has been brutality that we haven't seen in past decades. There's been a total internet shut down for several days. We now have partial internet, but social media is still being shut down by the state. The state is denying that they shut the internet down while the service providers are saying that they were compelled to shut down the internet by the state. Under the cover of this internet blackout, the military has been going from door-to-door bashing down people's doors, dragging them out of their homes and beating them in the streets. People have been shot in the street.
Hundreds of people are currently in police custody and there seems to be a real military operation going on throughout the country. Last night, I was out in a small village called Goromonzi about 50 kms from Harare and at that police station, the military literally came in and took control of the police station. They started manning the booth of the police station and there were about about 20 soldiers. Some in uniform, others in plain clothes and some wearing balaclavas and carrying rifles. They literally took over the operations of the entire police station in what seemed to be an attempted abduction of my clients, some teachers who'd been arrested. Fortunately, we managed to get the teachers into the custody of the police and in police cells and they were safe. We're now back in Goromonzi. It is a very serious state crackdown on all forms of dissent at the moment.
And Doug, the military and the soldiers that you're speaking of, these are the same soldiers with whom just a few months back, Zimbabwean citizens were marching down the streets in celebration after the removal of Robert Mugabe, correct?
Yes, absolutely. That march was the 18th of November, 2017. People came out to celebrate the end of the Mugabe-era and we thought that it might bring about something new. Of course at that stage, which was right in the middle of the military coup, no one knew what the outcome would be: whether Zanu-PF would retain power or there would be some sort of transitional arrangement to cure the coup and usher in a new democratic dispensation. Unfortunately, it's been the former. Zanu-PF, and particularly the military, have entrenched themselves and this regime is proving to be just as brutal, if not more brutal than that of Mugabe and equally, if not more, incompetent at resolving the economic crisis.
Has there been any word from President Emmerson Mnangagwa on the current nationwide protests that are happening?
Not that I am aware of. Of course, we've had an internet shutdown, so information sharing has been quite difficult on our side.
However, there have been a number of statements by the government, essentially blaming all of the violence that occurred on the main opposition party, the MDC alliance, even though the shutdown was not called for by the MDC alliance. Of course, bearing in mind that number one, those who did call for the shutdown urged people to remain peaceful and number two, while there has been some regrettable violence from protesters, the vast majority of the violence has been meted out by soldiers and police officers killing and beating people.
Listen to the short interview below.
Some of the commentary provided by Coltart on his Twitter page.
4/ In the meantime: PLEASE spread the word about what is going on in Zimbabwe. Unspeakable horrors are being unleas… https://t.co/HEAc3f6p1R— Doug Coltart ✊🏽🇿🇼 (@Doug Coltart ✊🏽🇿🇼)1547635007.0
#ALERT 🚨 Receiving a lot of disturbing reports that there is a widespread military operation in Harare’s townships… https://t.co/GglkejpdgU— Doug Coltart ✊🏽🇿🇼 (@Doug Coltart ✊🏽🇿🇼)1547539336.0
Internet access restored in Zimbabwe https://t.co/HFIFoYzcd6— eNCA (@eNCA)1547712445.0