By Jill Baker
Freed from the shackles of Europe and in anticipation of new trading opportunities, Britain hosted the inaugural UK-Africa Investment Summit in London on Monday night. Leaders from 21 countries were treated to a reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Zimbabwe, a former British colony and one time foodbowl of Africa, was not invited.
Harare’s stinging response to this diplomatic snub was a dismissive description of the UK as “no longer an investing global power”. President Emmerson Mnangagwa will go to the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday instead. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, the leader of Africa’s economic powerhouse, will go to both. In all probability, Mnangagwa will do as he has done on several occasions in the last year, hire a luxury Boeing Dreamliner to fly him and his retinue to Davos.
Mnangagwa has boasted of a deal with Russia trading precious minerals for “military hardware”. Speculation is rife as to what that military hardware might be and just how it will be used to subdue an increasingly volatile and angry population.
Zimbabwe is verging on destitution. UN special rapporteur on the right to food Hilal Elver spoke in terms of “man-made starvation” when she estimated last November that close to 60 per cent of the population was “food insecure”. Elver said this was likely to escalate political instability in the country.
Her statement has proved to be frighteningly accurate, with anecdotal evidence suggesting many Zimbabweans are deemed fortunate if they find one good meal every two days. World Bank estimates show an increase in the number of people living in extreme poverty from 4.7 million in 2018 to 5.7 million last year.
One of the first signs of desperation arose in September after Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association head Peter Magombeyi was abducted from his home. He had been loud in his condemnation of the fact that it cost hospital doctors more to get a bus to work, than they earned in a week.
After he was found the authorities would not let Magombeyi go to South Africa for urgent medical treatment for suspected poisoning. All junior hospital doctors refused to go to work until he was allowed to leave. Pictures of empty hospital wards crowded social media. Magombeyi returned to Zimbabwe a broken man and last week resigned from his role.
Last week public servants went on strike for a day in demand for increased wages, saying that their earnings were disappearing under skyrocketing inflation. Zimbabwe’s annualised inflation rate for last year almost doubled from its July estimate to 521 per cent.
So with a shattered public health system, the soaring price and scarcity of food, and a moribund public service, revolt is close — while strength lasts and before the ennui of starvation becomes overwhelming.
Those who dare to protest are met with uncontrolled brutality from a police force that is underpaid, under-trained and desperate for survival. When there is nothing more to lose, starvation drives people to new levels of courage — or thuggery.
Over the past few months, there have been increasing reports of killings carried out by the maShurugwi — a gang of 20-somethings with nothing killing with machetes anyone who has anything — who started with the murder of itinerant goldminers in the midlands. In the past few days, the maShurugwi have spread from rural areas to the suburbs of Harare.
The growth of maShurugwi, suspected of being established by the ruling ZANU-PF, exhibits an unexpected energy and life of its own. Alarmed imaginings, drawing on the horrors of the Interahamwe of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 are starting to feed the easily triggered fears of social media chatterati.
This has not been helped by photographs that reveal that among the disguised killers are members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police. Feeding this has been spotting in Harare of the maShurugwi driving the dreaded double-cab white utes associated with the police and the Central Intelligence Organisation.
On the other side of the coin, a vigilant security guard found a policeman stealing copper wire — on arrest, his cowering excuse was that he needed to feed his family. In Bulawayo junior police officers have, en masse, refused to be deployed in the city as they stand around in heavy anti-riot gear for 12 hours at a stretch without food or drink.
Boris Johnson as foreign secretary in April 2018 said he would give Mnangagwa a year to improve human rights and get the economy working before there could be any consideration of the readmission of Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth.
Both have become dramatically worse. It is hardly surprising that there was no invitation to the UK-Africa Investment Summit.
As things stand today, the whole country is fast becoming a human rights disaster.
How long will Britain and other members of the Commonwealth and the UN watch Zimbabwe, with all the potential and promise of its well-educated populace and abundant natural resources, make a violent descent into mayhem.
Jill Baker,a former broadcaster in Zimbabwe is the author of The Horns: Beloved African