Zimbabwe on Friday abruptly suspended all mobile money transactions, the most widely used platform to make and receive payments in the crisis-ridden country, claiming the move would tackle crime and economic sabotage.
The government also suspended all trade on the country’s stock exchange, which it accused of being complicit in illicit financial activities.
An information ministry statement said government was suspending with immediate effect “all monetary transactions on phone based mobile money platforms in order to facilitate intrusive investigations”.
“Government is in possession of impeccable intelligence … whereby mobile-based phone systems …are conspiring with the help of the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange — either deliberately or inadvertently — in illicit activities that are sabotaging the economy,” it said.
In 2016, mobile money payments reportedly accounted for more than 80 percent of all electronic payment transactions.
The shock announcement coincided with month-end when people receive and withdraw their salaries via mobile phone banking.
In a country critically short of bank notes, the move will likely shut most general transactions from payment for groceries and services such as electricity.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power in 2017 following a military coup pledging to revive the moribund economy, now blames the economic malaise on unnamed “political detractors”.
“We are fully cognisant that this battle is being fuelled by our political detractors, elite opportunists and malcontents who are bent on pushing a nefarious agenda,” he said this week.
Zimbabwe is in the throes of its worst economic crisis in more than a decade.
The country is short of cash and basics including fuel and the staple cornmeal.
According to new data annual inflation was inching closer to 800 percent in April.
Zimbabwe on Wednesday announced a 150 per cent rise in the price of fuel following the launch of a forex auction system which eroded the value of the local currency.
The price of a litre of diesel jumped 152 per cent to ZW$62.77 ($1.12) from ZW$24.93 while petrol shot up 147 per cent to ZW$71.62, the country’s Energy Regulatory Authority said in a notice.
The central bank re-introduced forex auctioning on Tuesday, the first in 16 years after a long battle to stabilise its currency and fight hyperinflation.
The auction saw the local currency losing more than half of its value from 1:25 to 1:57 to the greenback by the end of trading.
Zimbabwe has been facing fuel shortages since October 2018.
The scarcity prompted President Emmerson Mnangagwa to increase the price of fuel by 150 per cent in January 2019, sparking countrywide demonstrations.
At least 17 people were killed and scores injured after soldiers deployed to quell the strike opened fire on protesters.
The government said at the time the prices were lower than in other countries in the region, and that some foreigners were buying fuel in bulk in Zimbabwe for resale in neighbouring countries.
Despite the price increase which was aimed at ending shortages, the scarcity persisted with motorists sometimes spending nights in queues for fuel pumps, stretching for kilometres.
After years in international isolation, Zimbabwe’s economy has been on a downturn for more than a decade.
Mnangagwa, who took over from long-time leader Robert Mugabe at the back of a military coup in 2017, pledged to mend the economy but things have only got worse with shops running short of basic commodities like bank notes, sugar and the staple cornmeal.
Zimbabwe’s health minister Obadiah Moyo was arrested Friday for alleged corruption related to the supply of medical materials to combat the coronavirus pandemic, the anti-graft agency said.
He was being held at a Harare police station and is likely to appear in court on Saturday.
“I can confirm that the minister of health and child welfare has been arrested and is being detained at Rhodesville police station,” John Makamure, spokesman for the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, told AFP.
“It’s to do with the procurement of COVID-19 materials,” he added.
The government did not immediately comment on the arrest, which came a day after the country’s main opposition condemned alleged state corruption following suspicions over a $2-million-dollar payment to a medical company contracted to provide anti-coronavirus equipment.
Harare has come under fire for granting two-month-old company Drax Consult SAGL a contract to supply $20 million worth of drugs, personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kits.
The deal was allegedly signed without the legal consent of Zimbabwe’s procurement registration authority.
In March, authorities in Hungary — where Drax Consult SAGL is registered — flagged a suspicious $2 million deposit into the company’s accounts, drawing anger from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Local media reported last week the arrest of businessman Delish Nguwaya, believed to be Drax’s local representative, in connection with the same case.
The government last week ordered the cancellation of all contracts for the supply of medicines and sundries by Drax, according to the state-run Herald newspaper.
The country has detected 479 virus cases, including four deaths, although that figure is believed to be underestimated due to a lack of testing.
United Nations experts on Wednesday called on Zimbabwe to stop “abductions and torture” that they said seemed aimed at stifling dissent.
Three members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change say they were abducted by police at an MDC protest in the capital Harare on May 13.
Joanna Mamombe, Netsai Marova and Cecilia Chimbiri — prominent members of the MDC’s youth wing — were found dumped on the side of a road two days later and taken to hospital with multiple injuries.
MDC leader Nelson Chamisa said they had been severely beaten and sexually assaulted.
In a statement, nine UN special rapporteurs — who do not speak for the UN but report their findings to it — said the three had been charged with violating COVID-19 regulations on public gatherings and with intending to promote public violence.
The UN experts called on Zimbabwe to immediately end the reported pattern of disappearances and torture.
“The charges against the three women should be dropped,” the experts said.
“Targeting peaceful dissidents, including youth leaders, in direct retaliation for the exercise of their freedom of association, peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, is a serious violation of human rights law.”
They urged the Zimbabwean authorities to “urgently prosecute and punish the perpetrators of this outrageous crime, and to immediately enforce a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ for abductions and torture”.
They also said that in 2019, 49 cases of abductions and torture were reported in Zimbabwe, without investigations leading to those responsible being held accountable.
“Zimbabwe must take all measures in its power to prevent such abuse, to investigate suspected violations, and to bring any perpetrators to justice,” the experts said.
The rapporteurs also urged Zimbabwe to admit UN rights experts so that they could assess the situation.
“There was no real farming going on here,” Chinyemba told AFP sitting on a garden chair on a well-manicured lawn.
“We renovated the house when we moved in,” he said.
Twenty years after Zimbabwe’s land reform began, the cases of Simons and Chinyemba illustrate the deep lingering divisions over what became a symbol of Mugabe, who ruled for 37 years until he was toppled in 2017. He died two years later.
– ‘On our terms’-
Two decades ago, Mugabe seized more than 4,000 farms from the country’s 4,500 white large-scale commercial farmers.
He justified the land grabs as a way to correct historical wrongs by claiming back land that was forcibly taken from the blacks.
Critics blame the land programme for wreaking havoc on the agriculture sector — a mainstay of the economy.
Economic output fell by half following the land seizures and the economy has been hobbled since — shrinking 7.5 per cent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube in a letter to the IMF in April, projected the economy could contract by between 15 and 20 per cent, partly due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Food shortages experienced over most of the post-land reform years are widely blamed on the loss of white farmers.
The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the shortages.
Two successive droughts have stunted agricultural harvests, leaving 7.7 million, half the population, food insecure.
According to the World Food Programme, 56 of the country’s 60 districts are experiencing “crisis” hunger and the virus pandemic risks driving people into “deeper desperation”.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has promised to import food to feed them “so that no one will starve”.
For Chinyemba, the government was right “repossessing” land from the whites, but they deserve compensation, if only for improvements.
“I don’t feel any remorse at all. The land belongs to the indigenous people. If the whites want to farm, they should do so on our terms.”
He said while black “people were killed,” when their land was taken from them, but “in all fairness, (whites) should get compensation” for improvements.
– ‘Willing buyer’ –
For white Zimbabweans, the programme was an invasion of their property. To the blacks, it was the final battle in the country’s liberation since they first rose against British colonialists in the 19th century.
The land issue almost derailed the negotiations with Britain that led to the birth of Zimbabwe in 1980.
Ultimately a deal was struck that the new government would not embark on any land reforms in the first decade in power.
After that, a “willing buyer, willing seller” principle came into effect with Britain to fund the buying of white-owned farms.
But in 1997, Clare Short, then British Secretary of State for International Development told Harare that London had “no special responsibility to meet the cost of land purchases.”
Sporadic invasions of white-owned farms ensued, but the government curbed them, with Mugabe assuring white farmers that “squatting” would not be tolerated.
Simons said white farmers deluded themselves into thinking they were untouchable and indispensable “royal game” because agriculture was key to the economy.
All that changed when in February 2000 after a constitutional referendum with a clause that would legalise expropriation of white farms without compensation, was rejected.
Days later, veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation war started running white farmers off their land.
A year later, the government formalised the reform programme. Farms were either sub-divided into six-hectare plots or handed out whole to blacks.
Thirty kilometres west of Harare, 60-year-old Israel Pasipanodya Mushore inherited Rasper farm. But it has not been easy work.
In contrast to Chinyemba’s, his farm is rundown. What used to be a swimming pool is now a fishpond.
Weeds choked the maize crop. His showpiece is a herd of 70-plus cattle.
In 2016 government introduced the “command agriculture” scheme to supply farmers with so-called inputs — seeds, fertilisers and insecticides — and they pay back on harvesting.
The scheme brought hope, but not enough.
“Equipment and inputs are our biggest challenge; we have no draught power,” Mushore said.
Inputs were not timely disbursed to farmers, or just didn’t get to them.
Funding remains one of the biggest challenges.
Currently, all land belongs to the state and farms operate on 99-year leases.
Financial institutions refuse to lend in the absence of collateral.
“The 99-year lease on its own, in its current form has not inspired confidence to the financiers,” said Paul Zakariya, who heads the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, which represents over a million small-scale farmers.
Ben Gilpin, who lost a farm, agrees.
“If the farmers were on the land with title or some bankable entity that is truly tradable and can be honoured by the banks, government wouldn’t have to fulfil the role,” said Gilpin, who is the director of the Commercial Farmers Union, which represents mostly white farmers.
– Compensation –
Zimbabwe’s government insists it will only pay compensation for improvements on the farms that were taken and for not the land.
John Laurie, 83, lost two farms in 2002, then valued at US$9-million.
Now wheel-chair bound and a double amputee, Laurie is one of the farmers’ representatives negotiating compensation with the government.
“We hope to have an agreement on a global figure for the immovable assets shortly,” he said.
The government has made “interim relief” payments to especially old and destitute farmers.
Some 800 farmers have so far been paid the equivalent of US$10,000 for each farm lost.
But 20 years on, the land reforms remain a work in progress.
After carrying out a land audit, government vowed to slash the size of under-utilised large farms and tackle multiple farm ownership.
Opinions on the reforms remain split. But even those who lost farms agree the situation where white farmers occupied the best agricultural land while millions of black Zimbabweans were cramped on semi-arid land, was untenable.
Economically though, the reforms are widely seen as a failure.
Independent economist Tony Hawkins, said agriculture’s share of GDP has fallen from about 15 per cent to less than 10 per cent.
Despite several attempts, AFP failed to obtain a government response.
But for the Zimbabwean leadership, Mugabe’s farming legacy continues to empower blacks.
“Our land reform programme remains a fundamental cog to our independence and sovereignty,” Mnangagwa said during independence celebrations in April.
China on Monday deployed a team of doctors and donated a consignment of medical equipment to Zimbabwe to help the southern African nation’s fight against coronavirus.
“The Chinese medical experts will make a contribution to the battle … against the coronavirus,” Chinese ambassador Guo Shaochun said at Robert Mugabe International Airport after the plane bearing 17 doctors and equipment arrived.
“This is a very good reflection of the long-standing friendship between China and Zimbabwe,” Guo added.
The value of the donation which included personal protective equipment for frontline medical staff was not divulged.
Social Welfare Minister July Moyo said told the Chinese diplomat that “you have demonstrated that we are all-weather friends”.
“You are bringing professional medical staff who were on the frontline fighting COVID-19 in your own country,” he said adding the help “can only bolster our determination to fight this pandemic”.
Zimbabwe has recorded 36 cases of the coronavirus including four deaths.
Local doctors have warned that Zimbabwe’s health services are inadequate to deal with a coronavirus pandemic.
Coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, was first detected in China in December last year.
An opposition municipal official has been charged with insulting Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa over for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a lawyers’ association said.
Chrispen Rambu, a local councillor in the eastern town of Chipinge and a member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was called in by the police, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said in a statement late Friday.
He was then charged with insulting Mnangagwa and undermining his authority, it said.
The ZLHR said the police believe Rambu sent a WhatsApp message to a local group which unfavourably compared Mnangagwa with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in the handling of the pandemic.
“Ramaphosa just announced a 500 billion (rand, $26 billion) stimulus package. Seeing him addressing and comparing him with ED you won’t doubt that we are having a fool for a head of state,” the message said, as cited in the ZLHR statement.
The initials ED refer to the president’s full name, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa.
Zimbabwe’s economy has been on its knees for years and many fear its medical system will not be able to cope with the coronavirus outbreak.
So far the authorities have reported just 29 coronavirus cases and four deaths.
The UN has warned that Zimbabwe suffers from serious shortages of basics, including medicines, while half of the 15 million population is threatened by famine.
A Zimbabwean high court on Monday ordered police to desist from arresting, detaining or interfering with the work of journalists providing coverage during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and journalist Panashe Makufa had petitioned the court to issue the order following a string of incidents in which police and other law enforcement agencies harassed or arrested journalists while carrying out their duties.
“The High Court has directed that… arrests or detention or other forms of harassment must stop,” a lawyer for the applicants, Chris Mhike, told AFP after the ruling.
“The police and all others who are working with the police in enforcing the rules of the lockdown have been interdicted from carrying out those actions that amount to harassment of journalists,” Mhike said.
Announcing the ruling in court, Judge Jacob Manzunzu gave the police hierarchy 12 hours to inform its members and other law enforcement agencies involved in enforcing the lockdown that the 2019 press card is valid.
Some police officers have raised concerns over the expiry dates of official press cards, demanding that journalists produce letters of exemption in addition to the cards.
The government had categorised journalism as an essential service during the lockdown.
But the police argued that “journalists are not exempted from the lockdown,” claiming that only journalists “from broadcasting and internet” were exempt.
The debate was laid to rest this weekend when the government exempted “the activities of persons as journalists, newspaper vendors or employees of such services” in its announcement extending the 21-day lockdown by 14 days to May 3.
MISA Zimbabwe’s executive director Tabani Moyo praised the court’s ruling, adding: “We hope the police will ensure that no journalist will be harmed going forward. We don’t want to keep on recording cases of law enforcement agencies targeting the journalists of this country.”
Zimbabweans braced Sunday for a three-week lock-down to curb the spread of the coronavirus which has killed one person so far and infected six others, and for many, the lockdown means tough times ahead.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a 21-day “total” lockdown from Monday that will curtail movement within the country, shut most shops and banks, and suspend flights in and out of Zimbabwe.
with independent sources saying the official number of infections is understated, the spread of COVID-19 could prove devastating for a country whose economy is crippled by hyperinflation and whose social health care systems are crumbling.
Poor rains have exacerbated the crisis, with half of the 15-million-strong population facing severe food shortages.
“We are not against the lockdown,” said Isaac Sayeed, who runs a stationery stall in the capital, Harare.
“But 21 days is rather too long. We already have shortages of basic foodstuffs,” he said.
The looming lockdown has triggered panic-buying and a spike in prices, adding more upward pressure to an inflation rate that currently stands at 540 per cent.
Price of cooking gas shot up almost 50 per cent overnight.
Long queues have formed in supermarkets as people rush to buy whatever they can afford.
“We are supposed to stock up enough things to last us 21 days, but most of us live on what we earn daily, so we only manage a few groceries. I can see us facing tough times ahead,” said Sayeed.
The cash-strapped government will not be able to cushion businesses against the lockdown.
“If they failed to buy ventilators for the treatment centres, where will they get the money to shore up small businesses which are in the majority?” Sayeed asked.
Sayeed said his business would take a knock, but he did not dare ignore the lockdown, which will be imposed with both police and military patrols.
The lockdown will be “a huge challenge for most people who rely on their daily earnings to survive,” said Prince Gwanza who sells books and mobile phones.
‘Starving in their own homes’
“I can foresee people starving while confined in their homes. There are few people who can afford a square meal on an average day, to expect them to stock up for three weeks in to expect the impossible,” he said.
Economist Prosper Chitambara of the Labour and Economic Research Institute of Zimbabwe think-tank also warned that the impact of the lockdown would be “severe in terms of livelihoods. We are a high in the formalised economy.”
According to independent statistics, as many as 90 per cent of the employable population do not have formal jobs and many choose to emigrate.
“Most people have no access to social protection and companies are not getting the huge bailouts that those in other countries are getting.”
Trade unionist Japhet Moyo said that “most people are living from hand to mouth and some companies may not recover after this”.
“While we are aware of the disastrous effects of the lockdown on the economy, we are faced with a choice whether its better to save lives and rebuild tomorrow.”
President Mnangagwa, who took over from long-time ruler Robert Mugabe in 2017 with the backing of the military, has struggled to revive the moribund economy and curb hyperinflation.
The public healthcare system already faces shortages of basic drugs and lacks essential equipment and running water. But doctors and nurses staged a walkout last week in protest over a lack of protective clothing to care for coronavirus patients.
On Saturday, health minister Obadiah Moyo made assurances that such protective gear has been secured.
Zimbabwe has re-introduced the use of foreign currency for domestic transactions in what was seen as a bid to tap into private forex savings as the country gears up for the battle against the novel coronavirus.
In a statement the central bank governor John Mangudya said the move is part of “measures to mitigate the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the Zimbabwean society and the economy”.
The government outlawed the use of foreign currency as legal tender last June after having used a basket of currencies when hyperinflation forced the government to ditch the Zimbabwe dollar in 2009.
The US dollar became the main currency for payment of goods and services, but a shortage of greenbacks forced the government to introduce a quasi currency called the bond note which was supposed to be equal to the US dollar in 2016.
In February 2019 Zimbabwe launched currency reforms including reintroducing the local currency and banned the use of the US dollar in a bid to solve a monetary crisis.
The use of the Zimbabwe dollar as the sole legal tender led to a spike of inflation which now stands at 540 percent.
The government said it was “making it easier for the transacting public to conduct business during this difficult period by making available an option to use free funds to pay for goods and services chargeable in local currency”.
But labour economist Godfrey Kanyenze says Thursday’s move was inevitable and the government has used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to try to stabilise the economy.
“We held a tripartite negotiation forum meeting with the government some two weeks ago, and business and labour agreed the Zimbabwe dollar was doomed. The government tacitly agreed,” he told AFP.
While the statement suggests the legalisation of the use of foreign currency was temporary, Kanyenze said he believed the measure would stay in place long term.