Zimbabwe’s former finance minister has accused President Emmerson Mnangagwa of seeking to destroy the country’s main opposition party under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, following sweeping arrests and a raid on its headquarters.
The crackdown on opposition activity came as the government faced criticism over the alleged improper award of contracts worth millions of dollars for the supply of medical equipment to battle the spread of Covid-19.
“They want to destroy the MDC,” Tendai Biti, a senior figure in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, told the Financial Times from a police holding cell. Mr Biti was arrested earlier this month with other MDC officials after they protested the seizure by security forces of the party’s headquarters.
Following his release, Mr Biti accused Mr Mnangagwa of targeting the opposition to hide his administration’s failure to rebuild the state and address rampant corruption.
“It is an unprecedented level of extraction and aggrandisement,” Mr Biti said.
Mr Mnangagwa came to power after the 2017 coup that unseated Robert Mugabe, with a pledge to reopen Zimbabwe’s economy and end the former dictator’s repressive rule. As he loosened coronavirus restrictions on Friday Mr Mnangagwa said that “the liberalisation of our economy must continue in earnest”.
But critics say Mr Mnangagwa has done little to revive economic activity, and opposition leaders accuse the former intelligence chief of running a dictatorship, like Mr Mugabe.
This week UN experts called on Mr Mnangagwa to “end a reported pattern of disappearances and torture that appear aimed at suppressing protests and dissent”. In particular they called for a full investigation into the abduction of three female MDC activists last month.
In a sign of the febrile atmosphere in Harare, the National Security Council, including security ministers and army chiefs, gave an unprecedented press conference on Wednesday to dismiss rumours of an imminent military coup.
“Claims of a military coup . . . amount to mere agenda setting by merchants of discord among our people, with the support of their foreign handlers,” Kazembe Kazembe, home affairs minister said.
Tendai Biti (C): ‘They want to destroy the MDC’ © Aaron Ufumeli/EPA
In a separate message to members of the ruling Zanu-PF party, Mr Mnangagwa blamed opposition members for stirring discontent. “We are fully cognisant that this is a battle being fuelled by our political detractors, elite opportunists and malcontents who are bent on pushing a nefarious agenda they will never win.”
Public anger was fanned further this week by allegations published in the Zimbabwean press that government contracts for the supply of coronavirus testing and prevention kits were improperly awarded and looted.
Hopewell Chin’ono, an independent Zimbabwe journalist, and other media outlets have alleged, citing leaked documents and invoices, that the government was overcharged for the equipment and that the suppliers, including UAE-registered Drax International, were not transparently appointed.
Mr Chin’ono and other Zimbabwean media accused Collins Mnangagwa, the president’s son, of involvement in the contracts, claims that he denied.
“The sole purpose of this narrative is to damage my reputation and that of the first family,” Collins Mnangagwa said in a statement. Drax International, which was incorporated in the UAE earlier this year, also denied wrongdoing and said in a statement that it had never done business with any member of the Mnangagwa family.
Zanu-PF officials have publicly warned Mr Chin’ono to cease reporting on the president’s family. Mr Mnangagwa’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The government cancelled the contract with Drax this week and opened an investigation into the alleged fraud.
After the 2017 coup, Mr Mnangagwa pledged that Zimbabwe would be “open for business”, but three years on at least half the population is going hungry because of drought and bad harvests, aid agencies have said. The World Bank has forecast up to a 10 per cent contraction this year for an economy where most industry was already a shadow of its former self.
Inflation is running at more than 750 per cent and Zimbabwe has been blocked from receiving emergency pandemic financing from the IMF over past allegations of corruption.
“The squeeze is on, on multiple fronts,” said Piers Pigou, an analyst at International Crisis Group, a think-tank. “Yet people [in government] are using whatever opportunity to extract rents. It is a desperate predatory environment.”