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Zimbabweans see little change after leadership shift

WHEN the late Robert Mugabe was ousted as President of Zimbabwe in a coup in November 2017, many in the country hoped for an end to the repression and mismanagement that had characterised his 37 years in office. But when protesters tried to gather on Friday in the capital, Harare, the security services reacted in a manner reminiscent of the Mugabe era. They shut down most of the city, arrested several government critics and forced more than a dozen others into hiding — highlighting how the country has, in the eyes of the opposition, slipped from bad to worse under Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa took power on a promise of renewal, but his critics associate him with the same excesses that defined Mugabe’s legacy: authoritarian rule, financial missteps, rampant graft, plummeting living standards and a teetering economy. “In reality, there is nothing new,” said MDC Alliance youth leader Obey Sithole, who went into hiding days before the planned protests. “Instead, we have seen the perfection of the art of repression.” And the government’s halting response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed the awful state of the country’s health care system and led to further allegations of corruption, has fuelled widespread anger. In an interview with the New York Times last year, Mnangagwa (77) described himself as a leader with a “new dispensation”. But in some respects, Mnangagwa — a veteran of the guerrilla war that ended white-minority rule, and one of Mugabe’s most trusted sidekicks — has proved to be an even harsher President than Mugabe. The number of opposition activists charged with a form of treason during Mnangagwa’s three years in office is already higher than during Mugabe’s entire tenure, according to research by a coalition of 22 Zimbabwean rights groups. Opposition activists hoped to hold mass rallies on Friday, partly in response to a new wave of arrests and abductions that began in May, when three female opposition activists, including a lawmaker, were abducted, beaten and sexually assaulted by people they say were plainclothes government agents. The government denied involvement, and after being treated in a hospital, the women were charged with false accusations. But Mnangagwa’s government refused to allow even this largely symbolic expression of dissent. To deter protesters in the prelude to the demonstrations, police seized the leader of an opposition group who had been helping to organise the rally, Jacob Ngarivhume, and a prominent investigative journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono, who had helped reveal a possible corruption scheme involving the country’s fired Health minister, Obadiah Moyo. More than a dozen opposition politicians, activists and union leaders, including Sithole, then went into hiding after police named them on a wanted list. And on Friday, the police deployed personnel across the city, shutting down most major transit routes and deterring most would-be protesters from gathering. Several of those who did try to assemble were detained, including author Tsitsi Dangarembga,

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