Activists and human rights campaigners in Zimbabwe fear a new crackdown that could roll back gains made during the eight-day crisis that culminated in the resignation of President Robert Mugabe last week.
Relatives of victims of state-sponsored violence said they were concerned about the track record of the new leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was Mugabe’s righthand man and is blamed for the brutal suppression of political opposition parties during elections in 2008.
“Just because [Mnangagwa] has wrestled power from the devil does not mean I see him as the messiah,” said Patson Dzamara, whose activist brother Itai was abducted in 2015 and has not been heard of since.
Mugabe, whose 37-year rule over the impoverished southern African country was marked by brutal repression, stepped down after a military takeover led to mass protests and impeachment proceedings in parliament.
In his inauguration speech in a packed national stadium in Harare on Friday, Mnangagwa, the 75-year-old stalwart of the ruling Zanu-PF party, said he would govern for all “patriotic Zimbabweans” and promised elections would be held as scheduled next year.
He did not mention lifting restrictions on freedom of expression, or any measures to weaken the grip of the feared internal security services he helped set up following Zimbabwe’s independence from white-minority rule in 1980.
The new president was minister of justice when Itai Dzamara was pushed into a vehicle by unknown men, and has been accused of involvement in the killings of more than 20,000 civilians in the south of Zimbabwe in the 1980s.
In his inauguration speech, he called on Zimbabweans to “let bygones be bygones”.
There are concerns that Mnangagwa, despite describing Zimbabwe as an “unfolding democracy”, may prove as intolerant of protest as his predecessor.
On Monday, a high court judgment is expected on subversion charges brought against Magamba, an award-winning satirical online network, social media activist centre and creative hub raided by police hours before the military takeover 13 days ago. Laptop and desktop computers confiscated by police have yet to be returned.
“How they deal with this [case] is a litmus test for the new government. It will be a signal to any activist who uses social media … about what you can and can’t say in this supposedly new Zimbabwe,” said Samm Farai Monro, Zimbabwe’s best-known political satirist, comedian and creative director of Magamba.
The network had repeatedly incurred the wrath of authorities with an irreverent and immensely popular weekly show.
The raid came after attempts by authorities to close its offices in Harare for alleged planning permission infringements failed. Martha O’Donovan, a US citizen who was an activist working with the network, was arrested last month on charges of subversion and undermining the authority of the president and will appear again in court in two weeks.
The fall of Mugabe, 93, was triggered by a factional battle within the ruling party over his succession. Within days of the military takeover, thousands of ordinary people were on the streets, waving placards and chanting slogans against the ageing autocrat in scenes unthinkable under his rule. In one massive protest more than 100,000 people marched through Harare.
“The military turned on the tap to allow a one-off big demonstration but the citizens’ momentum has to stay on. We are fighting not just to keep that space open but to radically expand that space that we need as citizens to make the new Zimbabwe a free country,” Monro, 37, said.
Human rights activists in Harare say that more than 400 people have been detained since the military took power. These include hundreds of security officials loyal to Mugabe, as well as former finance minister Ignatius Chombo. Only a handful have been charged with any offence.
Chombo appeared in court on Saturday in leg irons to face corruption charges after more than week in military custody.
The whereabouts of several other prominent supporters of Grace Mugabe, the former president’s 52-year-old wife, are unknown. It was the first lady’s bid to cement her hold on power through the sacking of Mnangagwa on 6 November that led to her husband’s fall.
The sudden events pose creative challenges to activists and satirists, too. “Now that Bob [Mugabe] is gone we have to work tirelessly on new Emmerson [Mnangagwa] jokes but they’ll definitely be coming very soon in the next show,” said Monro.