2020 has been the year for awareness and awakening to the lived realities of so many people whose stories have been largely overlooked and ignored. Growing up in Zimbabwe through arguably some of its worst crises since gaining independence in 1980, I always felt that our lives and struggles were greatly insignificant compared to what was happening in the rest of the world. Through a combination of expertly crafted state propaganda and what I believe to be a general lack of information over what was going on in a relatively unimportant country I never realised how so many communities around the world were experiencing what I was, how so many teenagers like myself were going through such adversities. In 2020 I saw and learnt about how certain communities such as Black Americans, the LGBTQ+, Indigenous people, Muslims and many other minorities are being either marginalised or outright oppressed. In this article I felt that I needed to bring awareness to these three countries in particular because Zimbabwe is my home country and I think it's important that our struggles become known, Congo has been such a large part of the global industry but their pain and burdens never acknowledged and Nigeria was the lead in starting a wave of awareness campaigns in African countries.
In November 2017, thousands of Zimbabweans flooded the streets of Harare in joy and filled with hope for a new beginning but 3 years later this idealistic dream seems farther away. After over 30 years of being ruled with an iron fist by the late Robert Mugabe, his government was ousted in a military coup by his former deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa, who in 2018 was inaugurated as Zimbabwe's new president. Like so many other Zimbabweans who grew up having only had one president our whole lives, I thought this was the change that would bring Zimbabwe forward to a more stable, more equal and safer country, but we were left disillusioned and fearing a worse outcome than we ever thought possible. The elections held in 2018 that resulted in Mnangagwa becoming president resulted in alleged election fraud and post-election violence that led to at least 6 people being shot and killed by the army who have become a regular presence in the everyday lives of Zimbabweans.
Mnangagwa himself is known for his human rights violations under the Mugabe regime but after his inauguration he made promises to hold corrupt politicians accountable, to revive the economy and most importantly to stop the widespread violations of human rights. However, this has not been the case as on 19 September 2019 police officers arrested journalist Gilbert Nyambavhu and his colleague for no apparent reason and on 21 September a radio journalist Pauline Chateuka was arrested for filming the police arresting street vendors on the streets of Harare, this has been a common problem in Zimbabwe for years. For the citizens of Zimbabwe speaking out against the government was never truly an option, because saying or posting certain things about the government was done in fear of disappearing or being arrested, which to some people might seem extreme or an exaggeration but for many Zimbabweans living in and out of the country, it was and still is a real danger.
In 2020 amidst one of the deadliest viruses that have affected the entire world, the Zimbabwean government has only worsened its oppressive tactics, with videos of unarmed civilians being tear-gassed, beaten and jailed for holding small peaceful protests on the state of the falling economy and struggling health care system circulating on social media under the hashtags #Zimbabweanlivesmatter and #ZANUPFmustgo. The government used COVID lockdown restrictions to stifle any protests or demonstrations, they put in place restrictive lockdown measures such as closing all stores and business by 4.30 p.m and included a curfew that required all people to be in their homes and out of the CBD area from 6 a.m to 6 p.m. The failing economy has further exacerbated the situation with Zimbabwe's inflation reaching 837.53% in July 2020 and the Zimbabwean dollar trading at $82.56 per $1 US Dollar. The state of the economy has been one of the largest driving factors for young Zimbabweans like myself to leave the country for better opportunities, this year alone has shown just how bad the situation is becoming for ordinary citizens with many of the burdens that other people in western countries are experiencing for the first time such as mass unemployment, mass homelessness and widespread hunger being a constant even before this pandemic. Whilst Zimbabwe has not had staggeringly high numbers of covid cases with the latest numbers in December at 10.424, the healthcare system is struggling to cope with the virus as supplies of medicine, PPE and even doctors, who have been on strike due to poor working conditions and low wages, have been a challenge that started last year well before the pandemic hit the world.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been a gold mine (pun intended) for minerals such as diamonds, rubber, gold, copper, cobalt and coltan for years. It has also, therefore, been a hotbed for violence and exploitation. In 2020 this exploitation has come to the front of people's minds with reports of children and women being used by rebel groups, government officials and foreign companies to mine for the very valuable mineral columbite-tantalite or coltan, that is used in all modern technology such as phones, laptops and game consoles. This precious mineral is now considered a ‘conflict mineral’ due to the violence and human rights violations attached to how it is extracted. It has been compared to the industry of 'blood diamonds' in the rest of Africa but also, particularly in Congo. As consumers including myself, we have been buying and using some of these products that have been produced using the actual blood and sweat of children no different than I am, the fact that so many of us were and are still are so unaware about how the raw materials are obtained and the production process of these products happens is a shame and a crime because no child, no woman and no man should have to die or face dangerous working conditions for you to have the latest laptop or shiniest diamond ring. Recent reports have brought to light the plight of coltan miners, with multiple cases being highlighted such as that of Solange, a 17-year-old Congolese girl who started working in the mines at the age of 11 who is now already a mother of 2 and a widow. This story paints a picture of the lives of many children, especially young girls, who end up in similar situations as they have no other options due to poverty and little to no education. Amnesty International has raised concern over the fact that many global companies don't seem to be doing much in terms of cleaning up the supply chain of coltan, many of these mines are owned by government officials and so there is little to no accountability or opportunity to trace the sources of the coltan that is sold to ensure it is mined ethically and without violence.
Congo has had a long history of exploitation starting as far back as 1885 when King Leopold II of Belgium formally took over the territory as his personal property. He spent years ‘overseeing’ the production of rubber and other minerals that gained him over 220 million francs ($1.1 billion in today’s dollars). This also resulted in the amputation of hands and feet and the killing of at least 10 million Congolese people. The practice of exploiting Congo has never stopped and doesn't seem to be anytime soon. In 2020 the hashtag #CongoIsBleeding has gained traction to show support for the people of Congo and condemnation of global companies that have been using these minerals with no regard for those being exploited to mine them. More attention needs to be brought to the suffering of Congo with most of its victims being women and children, many activists and charities have been calling for the end of this exploitation by foreign governments and global companies and to end the violence led by rebel groups and largely ignored by the unstable government. It’s one thing to read about the exploitation of a country in history books, to debate over the number of those killed and the irreparable harm that was caused, but it is another thing to continue perpetuating that harm and to continue repeating the same atrocities over and over again.
On 20 October 2020, at least 12 people amongst thousands who were protesting state-sanctioned police brutality were killed by Nigerian soldiers on a day now known as the Lekki Massacre that happened at a tollgate in Lekki, an area of the megacity Lagos. This atrocity gave me the same feelings of hopelessness and anguish I felt watching the same thing happen to Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado, to Ahmaud Arbery in south Georgia and countless others around the world who died either fighting for their right to live without fear of police violence or killed just living their lives. 9 days later, Nigerian musician Burna Boy released a song titled ‘20 10 20’ condemning the event, the song is named after the date the massacre happened. I felt that this song not only condemned what happened on that day but also gave a voice and honoured those who died on that day by playing at the end of the song an actual recording of the people protesting at the tollgate crying and running away as gunshots can be heard in the background. These protests had started a few weeks before, on 3rd October when a video of a young man who had been shot and killed by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was shared on social media. The hashtag and campaign #EndSARS, however, first surfaced in 2017 when a viral police murder was shown on Twitter, this led to people mobilizing on the streets to protest the death. Since 8 October 2020, protesters had organized daily mass demonstrations, blockades of major airports and roads and held vigils, this was all done peacefully, socially distanced as much as possible with people wearing masks and the youth even picking up litter and cleaning after the demonstrations - until the events of 20 October.
SARS was a tactical police unit started in 1992 to address violent crimes such as armed robbery and kidnapping. However, over the years, SARS has committed more violence and corruption against the people, particularly young ones. They regularly targeted young people who they felt dressed well above their financial means, those with nice phones or laptops and those who drove fancy or expensive cars. In 2020 Amnesty International released a report that documented 82 gruesome cases between January 2017 and May 2020 that included beating, waterboarding, hangings, etc. With the traction the hashtag gained in October, many people have used the hashtag to share their stories of abuse at the hands of SARS. These protests made me realise just how bad the situation that so many young people like myself were facing not overseas but in the same continent, but also how resilient and determined to change the future they are and we can all be.
These protests have garnered support over the world with many demonstrations being held in London, Toronto, Paris and New York by Nigerians living in the diaspora. Several celebrities also showed their support on social media such as Beyonce, John Boyega, Jack Dorsey and Elsa Majimbo. This latest wave of the movement got inspiration and support from the #BlackLivesMatter movement that started in May 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota after the police killing of George Floyd. Many of these global movements have been organised by women who are taking charge and leading the way for change across the board, the movement was largely organised online and on the front lines by a group of brave young women. Like all movements, funds were needed to keep it going, in particular, a group of 14 women came together and created an organisation called the Feminist Coalition, and crowdfunded more than 147 million nairas ($400,000) which were redistributed to buy food, water, medical supplies, legal aid, security and funds for families who lost loved ones during the protests.
Nigerian youth have been voicing their pain and suffering over the lack of adequate educational resources and opportunities, high unemployment rate and poverty, in August 2020 Burna Boy released a song titled ‘Monsters you made’ that calls out the government for its treatment of the youth, a sentiment shared by many African youths who are often left to fend for themselves by their governments but also heavily punished for failing to thrive in a system that does not support their growth. The Nigerian government has responded to these protests with violence and in one of his televised speeches the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, called for an end to the protests stating “that the government would not allow anybody or groups to disrupt the peace of the nation.” On October 11 the inspector general of police announced the disbanding of SARS to form the Special Weapons and Tactics unit (SWAT) on October 13, this was met with scepticism and outcry that it would not be any different because the officers responsible for these atrocities even with the anti-torture legislation passed in 2017 never got arrested, fired or held accountable in any way, therefore, it would be the same officers under a different name.
With all this in mind dear reader, keep #AWAKE AND AWARE! This is the introductory article to my series titled 'Changing the Narrative', so stay tuned for my next article!
by : Rumbidzai L. Mudzongo