The Struggle for Freedom: Jacob Ngarivhume jailed in advance of anti-corruption protest – and Zimbabwe’s disputed elections 

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Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute

Jacob Ngarivhume, the leader of the small political party Transform Zimbabwe, was swept up in a preemptive crackdown that headed off a nationwide anti-corruption protest planned for July 31, 2020.  

Ngaivhume was convicted of “inciting violence” and ultimately sentenced to four years in prison last April after posting a video posted to Twitter, now known as X, urging his fellow citizens to join peaceful demonstrations against the country’s rampant corruption.  

Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party regards Ngarivhume and his anti-graft message as a threat and sought to neutralize it in the run up to its nationwide elections held last month.  

“If Jacob had succeeded with his call for nationwide protest,” Dr. Musa Kika, the executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum told me, “he was going to emerge as a much more important figure in Zimbabwe’s political landscape.”   

The elections were characterized by fraud and intimidation by the ruling ZANU-PF party.  Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission declared incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa the winner, and he was sworn in for a second presidential term Sept. 4. The ZANU-PF claimed a plurality in the parliament.   

Nelson Chamisa, the presidential candidate of the principal opposition party Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC), has decried the “blatant and gigantic fraud” and called for nationwide protests. The United States, European Union and South Africa Development Community have all criticized the conduct of the elections.   

Zimbabwe’s endemic corruption 

Ngarivhume, 45, joined the democratic opposition to Robert Mugabe’s decadeslong dictatorship while a student at the University of Zimbabwe. Ngarivhume later founded a nongovernmental organization to document political violence and has been arrested a number of times, including for sermons he delivered at church. Transform Zimbabwe, which Ngarivhume founded in 2013, has roots in a Christian prayer network. He is a pastor in the Apostolic Faith Mission Church and the married father of three.   

Ngarivhume focuses on Zimbabwe’s rampant corruption, which ranges from the bribery demands citizens encounter from officials in their daily lives to massive graft involving infrastructure and COVID-19 procurement scandals. Ngarivhume has linked Zimbabwe’s corruption to inflation, collapsing health care and education, and mounting costs to society, particularly unemployment and rising drug addiction.  

 The watchdog group Transparency International (TI) ranked Zimbabwe among the most corrupt countries in the world – 157 out of 180 in its annual Corruption Perspectives Index in 2022. The group cited Zimbabwe’s “grand corruption,” defined as a “systematic or well-organized plan of action involving high-level public officials that causes serious harm, such as gross human rights violations.” TI also called for an investigation of allegations – made in Al Jazeera’s four-part 2023 documentary Gold Mafia – that top Zimbabwean officials are involved in money laundering that relies on illicit gold and is used to evade international sanctions.  

In an October 2020 television interview, while out on bail, Ngarivhume marveled at the missing revenue from diamond mining under the Mugabe regime, while also describing the degrading and unsanitary prison conditions his fellow prisoners suffer.   

The U.S. State Department calls the country’s anti-corruption efforts, such as they are, “highly politicized.” Zimbabwe’s president appoints and fires members of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC), and a “catch and release” approach is used to target disfavored allies or rivals rather than pursue prosecutions.  

Corruption goes all the way to the top. In 2022, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned President Mnangagwa’s son and namesake, Emmerson Mnangagwa Jr., for his links to a businessman sanctioned for graft connected to subsidies for farmers. President Mnangagwa himself has been under U.S. sanctions since he was Speaker of Parliament for undermining democracy and the rule of law, and enabling political violence. 

Fixed elections  

The fox also guards the henhouse when it comes to the integrity of Zimbabwe’s elections. Regime loyalists, including serving and former members of the military, dominate Zimbabwe’s Election Commission (ZEC), according to Human Rights Watch. During the 2023 election, the ZEC’s refusal to release voter rolls and polling place information created opportunities for fraud.  

 In the months leading up to the balloting, police banned opposition rallies, and an opposition member was stoned to death. International observers were refused accreditation, including 30 from the Carter Center in Atlanta. The regime also adopted laws that criminalize lobbying by nongovernmental organizations and, more ominously, the so-called Patriotic Bill authorized the death penalty for “willfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe.”    

Voting was extended for a second day after voters at some polling stations ran out of ballots and experienced long delays, notably in urban areas that support the CCC. Meanwhile, in rural areas where ZANU-PF enjoys greater strength, the ruling party mobilized voters 

`Shaking the matchbox’ 

The regime’s most insidious tactic to block change through the ballot box, however, is the threat of violence.  

Opposition members and NGO activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch for its 2023 preelection report said that ruling party officials openly alluded to the bloody aftermath of elections in 2008 and the impunity of its perpetrators.  

“People are being told by ZANU-PF that if opposition supporters were killed in 2008 and nothing has happened to the killers, ‘Who do you think you are?’”   

At the time, the leading opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, won parliamentary elections and its presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, won a higher percentage of the vote than Robert Mugabe, although less than necessary to win outright.  

Refusing to concede power, the ruling party unleashed violence resulting in hundreds killed or disappeared and thousands more brutally beaten, arrested, and tortured. Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff, which Mugabe then claimed to have won by a lopsided margin.  

“You do not always have to burn the house down – in some cases merely ‘shaking the matchbox’ has the desired effect,” Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas wrote about Zimbabwe in their book, How to Rig an Election. “In other words, once a pattern of repression has been established, it becomes possible to sustain it in a manner that is relatively low key [by] censoring the media, denying permits for opposition rallies, arresting potential ‘troublemakers.’”   

 The sad, predictable toll from this tactic, repeated in elections since, is reflected in a recent Afrobarometer poll in which a majority of Zimbabwe’s voters said they preferred a peaceful election to a fair one.  

The stakes  

It’s highly likely that Chamisa would have won handily in a free and fair vote.  

The ZANU-PF government may have believed it faced defeat. On Aug. 24, police arrested more than three dozen accredited poll watchers and seized computers they were using to tabulate votes. Such information could have been used to challenge the regime’s results. The workers were charged with “subversive and criminal activities.”    

Zimbabwe’s electoral fraud and intimidation was entirely predictable. All the more reason that the United States and its democratic allies should have prepared a meaningful response to Mnangagwa’s playbook.  

Jeffrey Smith, founder of Vanguard Africa, an NGO that supports democracy in Africa, told me that the United States should refrain from endorsing “a completely flawed, shambolic election and refuse new debt relief, new lending, or direct support to the ZANU-PF government until substantive political and electoral reforms” are adopted. Any engagement with the regime, he says, “will inevitably be spun, both domestically and internationally, as an ‘endorsement’ of an oppressive government.”  

Freedom for Jacob Ngarivhume should be added to the list.