Zimbabwe Burning: Making Sense Of The Ashes


As the world launched fireworks to celebrate the arrival of 2019, there was no ‘happy new year’ in Zimbabwe.

Teaser Image Caption
People run at a protest as barricades burn during rainfall in Harare,Zimbabwe January 14, 2019


In year 64 A.D. a great fire consumed Rome for six days. It destroyed over two-thirds of the city and left over 50% of Rome’s population homeless. When the fire started the emperor, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (Nero) was away at his villa, Antium, about 55 kilometres from Rome. When he heard of the fire, Nero, a reviled leader renowned for cruelty, left Antium to attend to the crisis. Despite these efforts, many in Rome did not trust Nero and thought his actions ineffectual. Legend has it that while the city burned, Nero “fiddled”. Whether Nero actually played the fiddle or if the fiddle even existed then, is subject to contestation, but the point is that some citizens of Rome, felt Nero had failed to “turn up” as a leader in the way that they had expected him to. Some even alleged that Nero had orchestrated the fire for personal economic aggrandisement, but Nero rejected these accusations, in turn blaming the Christians for starting the fire. At his behest, many Christians were arrested, “thrown to the beasts”, crucified, and burned alive.



As the world launched fireworks to celebrate the arrival of 2019, there was no ‘happy new year’ in Zimbabwe. Many city dwellers, accustomed to making the customary journey to their rural homes for Christmas, had failed to. Many could neither find nor afford fuel, and public transport, when found, was limited and expensive. As the townsfolk endured a sombre Christmas away from home, many rural folks were deprived of their usual Christmas boxes from the city. The usual Christmas splurge was absent on account of cash shortages, and unaffordable prices of even basic goods.

Towards the end of last year, stores and traders increasingly grappled with government declarations that the bond note (a form of a banknote introduced in 2016 to stem the rise of cash shortages) was equal to the US dollar before passing the problem to the customer by increasing the prices of goods threefold. This immediately became a huge challenge for working people who got paid their salaries in bond notes via their bank or mobile money accounts. When they wanted goods, providers charged them in US dollars or at the unofficial bond note exchange rate of 1:3.

Doctors and other health workers were soon striking over salaries, teachers were protest-marching 300 kilometres and being arrested demanding to be paid in US dollars, and even bankers were contemplating industrial action.

By December 2018, many businesses were hard pressed to continue operating. Olivine, manufacturers of cooking oil declared that it was struggling to restart operations in 2019, while its competitor, Surface Wilmer, closed in 2018.  Delta Beverages, the local bottlers of Coca Cola and brewers of Castle Lager also declared viability challenges, resolving to charge wholesale clients in US dollars, but recanted after striking a deal with the government to fund its import requirements. All this was on the heels of announcements to close down business by companies like Sakunda Logistics (fuel), National Foods (food) and Capri (electrical appliances).

Starting the Fire

If Zimbabwe’s general state of collapse was dried grasslands, and the workers’ strikes and business incapacity were a fuel, then Emmerson Mnangagwa’s return from leave in early January and his immediate actions provided the spark that turned the landscape into a devastating blaze. Without bothering to provide any convincing explanations, Mnangagwa announced an immediate tripling of fuel prizes from $1.24 to $3.31 per liter of Petrol. How this would affect the poor, or whether it would improve the availability of fuel was not readily explained, but it would return Zimbabwe to international infamy as the country with the worlds most expensive petrol and diesel. Mnangagwa then left on a Eurasian tour to Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Kazakhstan en route to Davos for the World Economic Forum.

Ordinary Zimbabweans received the price hikes and hasty departure with anger, despair and frustration. In response, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, other public sector unions, social movements, and some civic groups, provided a formal voice and leadership to the calls to action, resolving to stage a stay away for three days from the 14th to the 16th of January. 


Vice President Retired General Constaninho Guvheya Chiwenga was the person left at home to put out the flames. Riots erupted across the country, leaving in their wake destroyed and burnt public infrastructures like police stations and toll gates, and looted supermarkets. The army moved in to crush the riots on the 14th, and then in the company of anti-riot police enforced some brand of martial law, unofficial curfews, and conducted door-to-door searches and dragnet arrests. The security forces left in their wake, a toll worse than the six bodies they lined the streets of Harare with in August 2018, when they were last deployed to quell protests following delays in announcing election results triggering fears of manipulation.

12 people dead, at least 17 sexually assaulted, 78 shot, 172 hospitalised, 242 tortured and subjected to other inhuman and degrading treatment, 844 human rights violation incidents, including at least 640 arbitrary arrests and detention, tens of opposition and civil society leaders in hiding, and thousands displaced. These were just the recorded numbers that the media and human rights groups like the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights and the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission reported as part of the human toll of the army crackdown on protesters during the week of 14 to 20 January.

Amongst those arrested were opposition leaders like MDC Organising Secretary Amos Chibaya, and three other Members of Parliament. Union and social movement leaders arrested and remanded in custody included Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions Secretary General Japhet Moyo, Teachers Union President Obert Masaraure and the leader of the #ThisFlag movement, Pastor Evan Mawarire amongst others. Harrowing stories of torture have filtered through from detention, and as the Executive Secretary of the Law Society of Zimbabwe observed, “irregular and illegal pre-trial processes and court processes” were “collusively used to deny accused persons access to justice.” 

While we can count bodies and calculate the financial losses incurred, what will be harder to account for is the collective trauma, anxiety and emotional toll on Zimbabweans at home and abroad. People knew that the army was shooting, killing and beating people. They knew that the police and the military were raiding homes, and conducting door to door searches, and detaining youths. However, they often could not tell whether friends and family were safe since the government had blocked the internet on several occasions, a directive which the high court would set aside as illegal on Monday the 21st of January.

International organisations like the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union, and Amnesty International regretted the protests’ turn to violence, but roundly condemned the military deployment and use of live ammunition on an unarmed civilian population. In the heat of the moment, the systemic nature of the crackdown, and the emerging pattern of the consistent deployment of the army for policing purposes, the use of live ammunition against unarmed civilians, execution of protestors, rape, and rampant use of torture and other forms of inhuman, degrading treatment, was neglected. ZANU-PF's decades-long record of human rights violations and even the events of August 1, 2018, were either forgotten, deliberately ignored, or wished away.

As the world condemned the January carnage, the Mnangagwa regime was arrogant, blaming the opposition and other nonstate actors and declaring that the crackdown was just a foretaste of things to come. It seemed clear that in the absence of measures that increase the costs of intransigence and continued human rights violations in Zimbabwe, the Harare regime would continue cracking down with impunity.

Return from Antium And Blaming The Catholics

The situation forced Mnangagwa to return to Zimbabwe, abandoning Davos. The expectation was that Mnangagwa would take his Vice President and ministers to task, and hold his errant troops responsible. However, on his return, Mnangagwa instead justified the fuel price and argued that the protests had not been peaceful. He alleged that police stations had been looted and guns and uniforms were stolen. Instead of taking responsibility, Mnangagwa was setting up his next fall guys. The line of march he was following had been directed a few days earlier by the police and the army, who at a press conference had alleged that deserters, retirees and thieves conducted the violations in communities, and that Western (German and American) governments and the opposition and civil society were behind the protests. Mnangagwa labelled the behaviour of those not among the thieves, retirees and deserters as misconduct, chaos and insubordination that would be investigated and “If required, heads will roll.” If the carnage witnessed in January does not require heads to roll, then nothing in Mnangagwa’s eyes ever will.

Of course, the extended challenge might be that heads can’t roll for following orders that Mnangagwa or his proxies issued. Supposing he was right that the killings, beatings and torture were rogue actions of chaos and insubordination, the expected move on his return would have been to take immediate steps to rectify the resultant injustices. For instance, through the release of victims of dragnet arrests.

Unlike Mugabe, Mnangagwa’s regime does not brag about violence, but carries it out in broad daylight with many witnesses, and then turns around and says “it wasn't us ,it was rogue elements”, and then does nothing. Denying the truth when it is so plainly apparent continues to cost Mnangagwa’s credibility dearly.

The January  2019 carnage occurred, and similar atrocities will continue to happen because history has shown that the army can get away with murder, and impunity encourages and emboldens perpetrators. The fact that the military has been deployed twice in five months lend traction to suspicions that while Mnangagwa is Commander in Chief, he is not in full control of the military, whose actions suggest that they are neither beholden to nor subservient to civilians and Mnangagwa’s authority. The military appears to takes its marching orders from centres of power which protect them, perhaps explaining why Mnangagwa has so far proved incapable of sanctioning their criminal behaviour.

Nonetheless, Mnangagwa, through his official Facebook page and Twitter handle, invited “leaders of all political parties as well as religious and civil leaders to set aside …differences and come together…. begin a national dialogue.” While the call is noble, presidential spokesperson has dismissed the call as an attempt to put words into the presidents’ mouth. He however insisted that channels already exist for dialogue through parliament, and that Mnangagwa had called for dialogue soon after elections. This obviously throws a wet blanket on prospects for meaningful engagement, but without foreclosing the possible actions around investigations, reforms, and dialogue that the tweet and Facebook posts had suggested.

Possibilities for Reform

Investigations and dialogue are always a popular way forward, but they will be hard to implement as multiple moving parts and interests are at play in the Zimbabwean story of carnage, protest and the militarised state.

Internationally, the pressure for Zimbabweans to talk is laudable, and possibilities of assistance from neighbouring South Africa could ease Zimbabwe’s economic burdens. But South Africa and the international community must not see this as just a festering economic problem, because there are obvious political roots. They must ensure that any aid to Mnangagwa’s government is matched by stringent benchmarks on political and economic reform, respect of Zimbabweans fundamental rights, restoration of the rule of law, release of political prisoners and cessation of victimisation of pro-democracy activists, social movements leaders, unionists and opposition members. Fundamentally, support must also be predicated on commitments to keep the military out of politics and policing, with clear measures taken if these agreements not be respected.

The call for investigations and dialogue, while popular will be hard to implement because of trust and credibility gaps, some of which are highlighted below as food for thought and by way of conclusion.

  1. Investigating the investigators: Given that the military and police are amongst the perpetrators of the heinous crimes around the January 2019 protests, and that the judiciary seemed complicit in subverting the rule of law, who will investigate and prosecute the offenders?
  2. Past commissions and bad precedents: The last attempt at an independent investigation through the Motlanthe Commission into the 1 August 2018 army killings was a damp squib and left many people disappointed by the results of the effort, and no prosecutions followed. A similar initiative will not soothe people’s distrust of such mechanisms.
  3. Credible facilitation and all-inclusive dialogue: Given Mnangagwa’s diminished  credibility, trustworthiness will need to be borrowed from elsewhere. It is unlikely that credible, impartial brokers of dialogue can be found locally, but even if they could be found, all Zimbabwean interests need to be part of the conversation, and at this point it is difficult to find a Zimbabwean who can be neutral and impartial on issues that directly affect them and their families.
  4. Who sits at the table: Part of the challenge of formal engagements is that they bring formal structures to the table. Yet in Zimbabwe, it is patently clear that it is powerful informal structures that influence government’s direction. Legitimately it can be asked how a dialogue process can yield actionable outcomes when those who can spoil the results are not identified, and may not be at the table?
  5. Virtue: Zimbabwe’s economic and socio-political challenges, as highlighted above, persist because the Mnangagwa regime has failed to make any meaningful economic and political reforms.  However, they originated of serious democratic deficits. These big political questions have impacted on the Mnangagwa regime’s legitimacy and will require not just a commitment to, but actual action on reform. Further, commitment and work on reform require virtuous elites across the political, social and economic spectrum, who recognise the challenges and commit to addressing them without recourse to protecting narrow parochial interests.
  6. Confidence and trust: As things stand, Zimbabweans have lost confidence in Mnangagwa and his government. They have lost confidence in the state and in the banks. Big businesses’ compliance with the regime’s illegal directive to  disconnect internet services has cost their credibility, as well as trust in the safety of technology. People who trusted Mnangagwa as sincere, and a safe pair of hands economically and politically, have had their trust betrayed. The opposition and civil society were never fully trusted.
  7. Some wisdom from the Catholics: The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference is right,” most Zimbabweans have lost trust in the leadership, and an exaggerated trust in individual leaders or parties has not in the end served us well. We do not need a strong man or woman but strong institutions. We need to develop a new and challenging kind of politics, a new cooperation and harmony based on reasoned argument, generous compromise and respectful toleration.” If Zimbabweans can jump the trust barrier and achieve this, it will be half way to all being right with the country.


After Rome burnt, Nero assisted with rescue efforts, opened up his palaces to starve homelessness and fed people to stem starvation. He later used the burnt parts of the city to build more fireproof, spaced houses for the people and a grand palace for himself. He would continue to be hounded by his enemies and his own Senate. Five years after the great fire, the Senate declared Nero an enemy of the people and suggested that he be killed by a beating to the death in senate chambers. Nero, heard of this and decided to take his own life, but couldn't, eventually forcing his secretary to kill him. With his death, a new ruler emerged, but Rome's challenges did not end.