Jacob Ngarivhume, a Zimbabwean politician and anti-corruption activist, was freed on Dec. 11 after the country’s High Court quashed his conviction for “inciting violence.”
Ngarivhume’s conviction was connected to a video posted in 2020 to Twitter, now known as X, in which he urged his fellow citizens to join peaceful demonstrations against corruption planned for July 31 of that year. Ultimately jailed in April 2023, Ngarivhume, featured in The Struggle for Freedom, served eight months of a four-year sentence.
Successful protests would have been a blow to the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa and helped make Ngarivhume a national figure. Instead, the regime preempted the protests with a crackdown and Ngarivhume ultimately spent the country’s August national elections in prison. Those elections returned President Emmerson Mnangagwa to office, but their conduct and results have been criticized for violence, intimidation, arrests and limits on independent monitors.
Having returned himself to power, Mnangagwa is taking more steps to entrench himself in power and protect his kleptocracy. As president he controls appointments to Zimbabwe’s anti-corruption commission, which is noted for using its power to target disfavored allies and rivals. Just one week after being sworn in for his second term, Mnangagwa appointed his son Emmerson Mnangagwa Jr. as a deputy finance minister of finance and a nephew as deputy minister of tourism.
So far, Mnangagwa has not been dissuaded by U.S. sanctions imposed on him for undermining democracy and the rule of law when he was speaker of the parliament and against his son for links to a businessman sanctioned for graft connected to subsidies for farmers.
Although Ngarivhume’s release is a great relief for him and his family, it doesn’t represent a change in attitude by the regime when it comes to the rule of law and freedom of speech. Instead, Ngarivhume’s arrest and release illustrates what Jeffrey Smith, founder of Vanguard Africa, a nongovernmental organization that supports democracy in Africa, calls “persecution by prosecution” – a well-honed tactic of Zimbabwean authorities.
“They keep critics behind bars for months, sometimes years on end, and never successfully prosecute them because there is simply no evidence,” Smith says. “It serves a purpose, though. It’s a chilling effect for other would-be dissidents.”