A hostage to the past

For three years since coming to power, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration has portrayed itself as a tolerant and all-encompassing Republic unlike its predecessor led by the late Robert Mugabe who clamped on dissent and brooked no criticism.

The clampdown had put Zimbabwe as an outpost of tyranny and a reference whenever discussions on autocracy took centre stage.

In his inaugural address in November 2017 following a military-backed transition President Mnangagwa spoke of a new dispensation which would work towards “ensuring that the pillars of the State ensuring democracy in our land are strengthened and respected”.

Fears of Zimbabwe receding to its old past arose this week after Cabinet considered and approved the amendments to the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act [Chapter 9 :23] as presented by the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs.

The import of the amendments is to criminalise the unauthorised communication or negotiation by private citizens with foreign governments.

The amendments will criminalise the conduct of isolated citizens or groups who, for self-gain co-operate or connive with hostile foreign governments to inflict suffering on Zimbabwean citizens and to cause damage to national interests, according to a statement released on Tuesday.

The statement said there has been willful misinformation of foreign governments by individuals and those peddling that should be liable for prosecution.

Other actions that will become punishable include planned and timed protests deliberately designed to coincide with major international, continental or regional events or visits.

Cabinet says there are also various unsubstantiated claims of torture and abductions that are concocted to tarnish the image of government, and amendments will criminalise such conduct.

According to the Constitution, the foreign policy of Zimbabwe must be based on the promotion and protection of the national interests of Zimbabwe; respect for international law; peaceful co-existence with other nations; and the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means.

In addition, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) only recognises States as legitimate players in foreign relations and negotiations.

Private players thus have no business in foreign relations and negotiations between countries.

The proposed amendments speak to a state that believes it is the only actor in the international system.

Non-state actors have become a key player and critical in raising awareness on critical issues, for instance, on climate change.

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has gained international recognition for raising awareness on climate change.

Every year, there are demonstrations during the UN General Assembly or the World Economic Forum in Davos as activists amplify certain messages.

The proposed amendments have the potential to make Zimbabwe a pariah state and wipe away the goodwill that had been gained especially after the repeal of two obnoxious laws—the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Public Order and Security Act.

Three years ago, President Mnangagwa implored Zimbabweans to declare that “never again should the circumstances that have put Zimbabwe in an unfavourable position be allowed to recur or overshadow its prospects”.

Management guru Peter Drucker once said the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.

For the Mnangagwa’s administration, the volte-face has a clear message: it can recoil back to old ways when cornered.

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