Zimbabwe's Suffering Is Man-Made, Lawyer Says

April 03, 2009

A UMNS Report

By Linda Green*

April 1, 2009

Zimbabwe's massive problems are man-made, says a human rights attorney in that country.

According to Tinoziva Bere, 43, who also is vice president of the Zimbabwe Law Association and legal counsel for United Methodist-related Africa University, "there is serious poverty that has been caused by the government's way of doing business. There is extreme suffering which is man-made."

The country has been plagued with rampant inflation of more than 230 million percent, a deadly cholera epidemic, an unemployment rate of more than 90 percent and devaluing currency.  "The currency is completely useless and we now depend on money from countries that our president has been calling names," Bere explained, in addition to serious abuses of human rights and attacks on lawyers who come to the defense of victims of those abuses. 

In an article on the Voice of America Web site, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee charged that human rights activists are missing or being held in prison on fabricated charges.

"They are in jail so they can be used as a bargaining chip," Bere said. He is currently defending Roy Bennett, the deputy minister designate for agriculture, who was arrested in February on terror charges of maintaining an illegal arsenal before he could be sworn in as a member of the cabinet of the new government. Bennett was released on March 12.

"The government has walked all over people and there is no willingness to change," Bere said.

'Man-made disaster'

Physicians for Human Rights released an emergency report in January that echoes Bere's description of the country. The emergency report, calls the health and economic crises affecting Zimbabwe "a man-made disaster."

Earlier in the month, it was reported that the country was in the midst of a "serious humanitarian crisis" and people were surviving on wild berries while appealing for food assistance that is not materializing.

The Rev. Forbes Matonga, a United Methodist and national director of Christian Care, which distributes food for UNICEF in Zimbabwe, said on March 5 that food security "remains particularly precarious" for Zimbabweans. "Faced with these challenges, it is not enough, it is not adequate to look east or west or to the hills for answers but to look up to the Lord and stand still and know that he is God," said Matonga, whose aid group is a member of the church-backed Action by Churches Together International alliance.    

According to Bere, food prices are decreasing and food is becoming available in the country, making trips across the border unnecessary. "We don't have freedom of choice in products but it is far much better than it was."

On March 30, leaders of the South African Development Community promised to help Zimbabwe raise between $8 billion and $10 billion to rebuild Zimbabwe's collapsed economy and tackle its humanitarian crisis. The plan also calls for $2 billion in short-term relief.

Bere, who is based in Mutare, said that while temporary relief is coming to some quarters, poverty cannot be eliminated in the country until capacity is restored, people are able to grow food and produce products and dependence on imports is reduced. Mutare is home to United Methodist-related Africa University.

Spirit remains

Despite the hard times, the spirit of the people has not been destroyed. "We could have degenerated to racial and other hatred and we could have resorted to killing each other, but the only killing that has gone on has been by militias-- paid, drugged and given beer to encourage them to do those things," Bere explained. "Ordinary people have remained what they have always been, the peace-loving Zimbabwean people."

Currently, the country's two leaders - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai - are in the honeymoon phase of a power-sharing agreement that was signed last September but did not become effective until the February formation of a unity government.  "It is not all bad on the ground," he said. "The two protagonists are learning to live and work together."

While it is not known if the agreement will last, Bere said there is pressure upon the two leaders to work for the betterment of the people.

In early March, the Obama administration declined to lift financial and travel sanctions against Mugabe and his inner circle and noted that the United States will not increase humanitarian relief until the newly formed unity government proves its seriousness about reform. Zimbabwean activists, including Bere, have lauded this action.

"Obama is a good man. He is keeping his eyes on the ball, the rule of law," he said.
"Zimbabwe did not suddenly become poor and destroyed. We did not have a war. Somebody decided to disregard the law and use a militia to beat up, kill and loot from ordinary citizens. That is what got us here." 

No unconditional aid

Bere said that money should not be poured into the country until good governance is restored and lawlessness is removed.

"As one in civic society, our action is that money must not be sent to Zimbabwe unconditionally," he explained, adding that money must be tied to reform of the police, reform of the judiciary and the prison system, "and reform of all institutions that have been used to oppress people and to harm people."

People in civic society believe "that if we had things our way, the centers of power would be clearly identifiable and they should be made independent and professional," he said.

Sitting at the same table is not going to eliminate suffering, he noted. As long as the country's infrastructure is destroyed and unclean water is pumped into people's home, suffering will continue. "My hope is that this government will realize that they cannot live peacefully with the world and continue their practices of trampling upon the rights of people."

Throughout the challenges and struggles, one place in Zimbabwe provides hope, strength and credibility to the people. "In the midst of the destruction, I testify that I have seen an oasis, a place where things are growing in the midst of the desert and that place is Africa University," Bere said. "Africa University is God's miracle. It is God's way of lifting up hope in a place where there is no hope."

From its humble beginnings 15 years ago, the university has grown "to become the best in the country and the one of the best in the region," he noted, adding that the school with its 1,500 students, has remained true to the vision and values of its planters.  

The university's survival in a country in the midst of financial and other turmoil is "like a long tree in a dry place. Where everything around it has died or has been destroyed, it has continued to grow," he said.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.