HARARE (Reuters) – Western diplomats in Zimbabwe expressed deep concern on Friday over a deteriorating political and economic crisis, and said the government should stop using the COVID-19 pandemic to curtail freedoms.
Zimbabwe is suffering inflation over 800%, which has revived memories of the hyperinflation more than a decade ago during Robert Mugabe’s rule. Nurses are on strike and a series of arrests of political opponents have raised the alarm about a crackdown on dissent.
Heads of mission from the United States, Britain, Germany, Canada, Netherlands, Norway and Poland said in a statement that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s initial promises of uniting the country and reforming the economy when he came to power had given hope of a break with Mugabe’s rule — then proceeded to list ways in which it seems not to have.
“The heads of mission express deep concern with the current political, economic, social and health crisis that Zimbabweans are facing today,” the diplomats said.
It is relatively rare for diplomatic missions to club together and publicly criticise their host country.
A government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mnangagwa accuses the West of sponsoring the opposition to destabilise his government.
African leaders often bristle at criticism from the West, which they say can be selective – vilifying some and keeping silent on others when it suits their strategic interests.
“COVID-19 must not be used as an excuse to restrict citizens fundamental freedoms,” the statement said.
The diplomats urged “the government to address corruption and the illicit extraction of Zimbabwe’s wealth for personal gain, which continue to undermine Zimbabwe’s development.”
It has been two years since Mnangagwa won a disputed election. As economic conditions worsen, critics say his government is reverting to the authoritarian tactics used by his predecessor.
“The government also has a responsibility to investigate and prosecute those responsible for violating human rights,” the diplomats said.
Activists say the government is abducting, torturing and arresting critics, including a freelance journalist and opposition politician who have spent more than a month in detention over anti-government protests.
The government denies the charges.