After threatening to dissolve Parliament and call for elections during a visit to Singapour last month, Zimbabwe’s aging leader, President Robert Mugabe, has began silencing his political critics through arrests and treason charges.
In the past two weeks alone, a record 48 political activists have been charged with treason. They face execution, if found guilty, pursuant to Zimbabwean law.
It all began with the arrest of 45 activists in the capital, Harare, in February after they participated in an academic discussion about the uprising in Egypt.
The state claimed that by playing videos of the footage of the uprising in Egypt they were mobilizing a revolt against the government.
On Monday (March 7) a Harare magistrate freed 39 of the activists.
On the same day, a court in the second capital of Bulawayo leveled treason charges on three leaders of the Mthwakazi Liberation Front (MLF), which is pushing for a separate Matabeleland state.
Political commentators in Zimbabwe say that treason has become a sort of initiation, and the higher the stakes or the stronger the opposition the more likely a treason trial will be, in the run up to the elections.
Chronology of treason charges
But treason charges against politicians have invariably crumbled for lack of evidence leading observers to accuse the state of false flagging.
In 2004 Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was cleared of treason charges emanating from his involvement with Dickens & Madson, a political consultancy firm led by Ari Ben Menashe, where they allegedly discussed the “elimination” of Mugabe in a contrived scenario.
Tendai Biti, the MDC-T secretary-general was in 2008 accused of writing a treasonous document ahead of the inconclusive harmonised elections. The case was later withdrawn.
Dumiso Dabengwa, now the president of the revived Zapu, together with the late Lookout Masuku were in 1982 arrested for high treason. They escaped conviction but were unable to enjoy their freedom because the state continued to detain them.
Abel Muzorewa, the leader of the short-lived Zimbabwe Rhodesia of 1979 was arrested in 1983 under Operation Chinyavada (scorpion), accused of sending 5 000 auxiliaries to the then apartheid South Africa in preparation for a coup. Muzorewa, whose party had won three seats in the 1980 elections was later released.
Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole was accused of leading a dissident group
plotting to kill Mugabe using explosives. However, no one has been convicted.
With such a poor prosecution record, analysts question the motive for bringing forward treason charges with the scantiest of evidence.
Peter Evans, of a political think tank Stand Up, said the treason charges were “used frequently after Independence.” Although, “in most cases, there was no success in the prosecution… it takes a lot of time and energy answering to the treason charges” he said.
He said accusing opposition leaders of treason fitted into the Zanu PF strategy of “scapegoating and othering” of political opponents as counter-revolutionaries, sellouts, puppets, dissidents, enemies of the state and other such labels.
“Creating cases for political opponents and turning them into enemies of the state is indeed a very old Zanu PF strategy that they will continue to use, wear down, waste time and resources as long as it distracts the political opponent from the core political business,” he added.
“As we approach crucial elections this year or later, this strategy will be used on opposition leadership while violence deals with the electorate.”
A treason trial involving a high-profile politician could drag on for long periods which may hinder the politician or party from campaigning.