Jailed journalist a symbol of a disillusioned Zimbabwe

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For most of 2018, journalist Hopewell Chin’ono rose to Twitter fame as a supporter of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had replaced Robert Mugabe after a military coup the year before. Now he is into his third week in jail, on trumped up charges of trying to incite people to overthrow the man he once praised. 

Chin’ono is, in a way, a symbol of the disillusionment with Mnangagwa, and evidence of how quickly the president has squandered his goodwill. 

The new dispensation

Mugabe’s overthrow and Mnangagwa’s ascendency had widespread local and international support. Mugabe, who first came to power in 1980, had stayed in office well past his bedtime. Worse, he was about to anoint his wife, Grace, as his successor

So, when army tanks arrived to pry him from office, just days after he had fired Mnangagwa, thousands spilled into the streets in the deputy president’s support. When Mnangagwa took over, less than three weeks after fleeing to South Africa, many Zimbabweans cast him as the reformist they had been waiting for

Chin’ono was among the many. In an article in April 2018, Chin’ono wrote about how Mnangagwa had “surprised [visiting United States] senators and their staffers when he turned on the charm offensive, only stopping once to give way for remarks in his 90-minute address punctuated by calmness which has always been an essential part of his persona and style”. 

For Nelson Chamisa, who had vaulted over equally ambitious rivals — and the party’s constitution — to take charge of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in February 2018, there was ridicule. 

On Twitter, playing on Chamisa’s nickname — he was called “Wamba dia Wamba” in college — Chin’ono coined the term “Wambology” to make fun of Chamisa’s often ambitious campaign promises. 

But Chin’ono’s road-to-Damascus moment soon came. It happened over a media reform deal gone bad. In a recent interview, newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube asked him: “When Emmerson Mnangagwa became president in 2017, am I right that you were largely supportive of him, and generally critical of MDC?”

Chin’ono replied: “Emmerson Mnangagwa had promised that he was going to deliver the change that we were looking for.”

It was all a lie, Chin’ono said, and he realised this after discussions, late in 2018, with senior officials over a possible deal to reform Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster. He had received a call from Monica Mutsvangwa, the information minister, asking for help on how to modernise the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Authority (ZBC). 

This would be a tough job, but necessary. The station is stuck in the past. Its comical nightly news broadcasts fit every caricature of a dictatorship’s media mouthpiece. 

Chin’ono called on his contacts at foreign embassies and in international media. The United Kingdom, he told Ncube, was ready to “put £3-million on the table” to train ZBC journalists. CNN, he said, was also prepared to train journalists and make ZBC an affiliate broadcaster. 

But not everyone was as enthusiastic about the reforms as Mutsvangwa had appeared to be. Soon, articles started appearing in the state press: Chin’ono was a puppet trying to deliver state media to the West, the articles said. 

“At that point I realised that the new dispensation was actually a new deception. There was nothing new about it,” Chin’ono recalled. 

Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga (L) and a colleague Julie Barnes hold placards during an anti-corruption protest march along Borrowdale road, on July 31, 2020 in Harare. – Police in Zimbabwe arrested on July 31, 2020 internationally-aclaimed novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga as they enforced a ban on protests coinciding with the anniversary of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s election. Dangarembga, 61, was bundled into a police truck as she demonstrated in the upmarket Harare suburb of Borrowdale alongside another protester. (ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP)

The new deception

Mnangagwa had one less supporter. Chin’ono went from leading the pro-Mnangagwa brigade on Twitter to being one of the shrillest critics of the regime. 

Then, in April this year, it emerged that Drax International, a company alleged to have links to one of Mnangagwa’s sons, had won a$60-million contract to supply drugs and personal protective equipment to Zimbabwe. Relentlessly, Chin’ono tweeted about the scandal, posting leaked internal memorandums and contracts that highlighted the depth of the corruption. 

Embarrassed, Mnangagwa wheeled out his lieutenants to attack Chin’ono. At a press conference, spokesman Patrick Chinamasa singled out the journalist: “We have noted the systematic targeted attacks of the first family members by unscrupulous characters like Hopewell Chin’ono targeting the president’s son.”

Chin’ono tweeted in response: “My life is now in danger after Zanu-PF attacked me personally through their spokesperson Patrick Chinamasa. I am only a detractor of corruption.”

He was right. On the morning of July 20, armed police smashed a glass door and entered his house. “They are breaking into my home. Alert the world!” tweeted Chin’ono. He was later charged for inciting violence against the government. 

As Mnangagwa failed to deliver on reforms and the economy, while allowing corruption and rights abuses to continue, there are many Hopewells who have seen through the ruse. Many of Mnangagwa’s most ardent supporters have become critical of him.

In September 2018, Mnangagwa appointed as finance minister Mthuli Ncube, a banker who was once a vice-president at the African Development Bank and taught finance at the universities of the Witwatersrand and Oxford. Businessman Shingi Munyeza, a longtime government critic, gushed: “This is the most credible finance minister in 20 years … a better finance minister by far since 2000. Save this tweet.”

Munyeza accepted a post as one of Mnangagwa’s advisers. These days, however, he tweets bitterly that Mnangagwa is the head of an “occult system”. 

It was not just Zimbabweans who fell for Mnangagwa’s apparent charms. In March 2018, Britain’s former Africa minister, Peter Hain, visited Zimbabwe. He had just been appointed consultant for Zunaid Moti, a controversial businessman running Africa Chrome Fields, a mine in Zimbabwe. 

“There is a new era in Zimbabwe as the former president is now gone and the new president has a new agenda,” Hain told an interviewer. Mnangagwa, Hain said, would be Zimbabwe’s Gorbachev. It was time to invest. 

But on July 30, in the UK Parliament, Hain told his government: “On July 20 highly respected journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested and denied bail for supporting an anti-corruption protest and faces 10 years in jail. Can the government update its sanctions to cover more Zimbabwe ministers and security chiefs?”

Chin’ono had dared to hope that Mnangagwa would take Zimbabwe on a different path. He was not alone. In 2017, thousands filled the National Sports Stadium to cheer on his inauguration. But, like Hopewell, they have gone from being Mnangagwa’s supporters, to being his prisoners.

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