Freedom in the World 2020 - Zimbabwe

Partly Free
/ 100
Political Rights 12 / 40
Civil Liberties 17 / 60
Last Year's Score & Status
31 / 100 Partly Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.


The Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has dominated Zimbabwean politics since independence in 1980, in part by carrying out severe and often violent crackdowns on the political opposition, critical media, and other sources of dissent. President Emmerson Mnangagwa took power in 2017 after the military intervened to remove longtime president Robert Mugabe amid factional divisions within the ruling party. However, the new administration has largely retained the legal, administrative, and security architecture it inherited from the Mugabe regime, and it has stepped up repression to consolidate its authority. Endemic corruption, weak rule of law, and poor protections for workers and land rights remain among Zimbabwe’s critical challenges.

Key Developments in 2019

  • In January, the government announced a 150 percent increase in fuel prices. Mass protests against the country’s worsening economic situation soon followed, and the police and military responded with deadly gunfire, arrests, torture of detainees, and a week-long internet shutdown.
  • Abductions and arrests of opposition figures, civil society activists, and trade union leaders were reported over the course of the year. Human rights groups documented at least 22 cases in which activists were charged with treason or subversion.
  • In November, President Mnangagwa signed the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act (MOPA) into law. While it was meant to replace the repressive Public Order and Security Act (POSA), the new law retained heavy restrictions on freedom of assembly.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4

The president is directly elected and limited to two five-year terms under the 2013 constitution. President Mugabe was forced to resign after 37 years in power as a result of the 2017 coup. ZANU-PF then selected Mnangagwa, whom Mugabe had recently dismissed as vice president, to become the new president, and he was quickly inaugurated.

A presidential election, alongside parliamentary and local polls, was held as planned in late July 2018. Mnangagwa was credited with 50.8 percent of the vote, followed by Nelson Chamisa of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC Alliance) with 44.3 percent and Thokozani Khupe of Movement for Democratic Change–Tsvangirai (MDC-T) with 9 percent.

International and local observation groups found that campaign activities generally proceeded without interference and that the polls were peaceful and relatively well organized, but they raised concerns about the overall conduct and integrity of the elections. The Southern African Development Community observer mission noted challenges including parties having difficulty accessing voter rolls, progovernment bias by the state media, contested postal voting, and the denial of the diaspora’s right to vote. A European Union mission noted similar bureaucratic challenges and problems with state media, as well as numerous reports of assisted voting, and of inducements and intimidation meant to aid the ruling party.

Vote-tallying irregularities and delays led to tensions after election day. The MDC Alliance leadership moved to declare victory in the presidential election before the official results were released and accused ZANU-PF of attempting to rig the vote during the delay. Opposition protests erupted in Harare, and the military was deployed to disperse them, leading to several deaths. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) ultimately declared Mnangagwa the winner of the presidential election. However, the MDC, whose factions reunited after the elections, refused to recognize the legitimacy of Mnangagwa’s victory.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4

Zimbabwe has a bicameral legislature. In the lower chamber, the 270-seat National Assembly, 210 members are elected through a first-past-the-post system with one member per constituency, and 60 women are elected by proportional representation. The 80-seat Senate includes six members from each of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces who are elected through proportional representation. Eighteen traditional leaders and two senators representing people with disabilities are appointed. Members in both houses serve five-year terms.

ZANU-PF won 180 of the 270 National Assembly seats in the 2018 parliamentary elections. The MDC Alliance won 87, and the MDC-T captured one seat via proportional representation. An independent former ZANU-PF member and the National Patriotic Front, a ZANU-PF splinter faction, each took one seat. In the Senate, ZANU-PF secured 34 elected seats, the MDC Alliance took 25, and the MDC-T took a single seat.

The bureaucratic irregularities and media bias that affected the presidential election also marred the parliamentary elections. Traditional leaders intimidated rural voters and acted in partisan ways, despite a constitutional ban on their participation in partisan politics.

ZANU-PF won most local and national by-elections held during 2019. Election observers continued to raise concerns about interference by traditional leaders in rural areas, and there were also reports of violence, intimidation, alleged ballot-box stuffing, and the distribution of food and medicine to secure votes.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4

The ZEC is responsible for election management and oversight, but its independence from ZANU-PF has long been questioned. The body faced criticism from international election monitors for aspects of its management of the 2018 polls, including its stewardship of the vote count, lack of transparency in its procurement processes, and the irregular arrangement of the ballots themselves, which appeared to favor certain candidates. Political parties and civil society had difficulty accessing the voter rolls, affecting audit and verification processes envisioned by the Electoral Act.

The introduction of biometric voter registration since 2017 has been problematic, and on election day in 2018 there was no biometric voter authentication. Separately, there was a noticeable decline in voter registration in Harare and Bulawayo, possibly due in part to fewer registration kits having been allocated there.

Weeks ahead of the 2018 elections, the Constitutional Court ruled that Zimbabweans abroad must return to the country in order to register to vote if they wished to participate in the polls. The ruling effectively contravened constitutional provisions guaranteeing every citizen the right to vote.

In July 2019, the ZEC appointed a former military figure as its chief elections officer. The opposition criticized the move, noting that the official had a long history of overseeing flawed elections and had served as chief elections officer in an acting capacity during the 2018 balloting.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 2 / 4

Political parties may generally form without interference. However, state media tend not to cover opposition parties, limiting their ability to compete. Authorities have often suppressed opposition gatherings. While opposition groups were able to hold most meetings with limited disruption in the run-up to the 2018 elections, the postelection violence prompted raids, arrests, and prosecutions targeting the MDC and its supporters.

Groups such as Mthwakazi Liberation Front (MLF) have been blocked from conducting memorial meetings for victims of Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s. The MLF is regarded by the government as a secessionist political party, and its leaders have faced persecution.

In August 2019, police banned assemblies organized by the MDC to protest the government’s economic mismanagement. A court upheld the ban, and police used force to disperse those who had already gathered in the capital.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 2 / 4

ZANU-PF has dominated the government without interruption since the country’s independence, though the MDC held the post of prime minister as part of a power-sharing deal with President Mugabe between 2009 and 2013.

The MDC managed to increase its share of parliament seats in the 2018 elections despite the uneven playing field, and Chamisa secured almost a million more votes in the 2018 presidential contest than the MDC candidate had in 2013. However, the postelection violence and the ongoing crackdown that followed have limited the opposition’s ability to operate and gain support, as reflected in the by-election results during 2019.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 1 / 4

The military has continued to play a critical role in political affairs since Mugabe’s ouster in 2017, participating in election preparations and the suppression of opposition activities. Many senior military officials have migrated to leadership positions in ZANU-PF and the government.

Traditional leaders, who wield important influence over public resources such as food aid, have intimidated villagers, restricted opposition access to their areas, and issued political statements in support of the ruling party, despite constitutional provisions and court orders requiring them to abstain from partisan politics. The president of the National Council of Chiefs, Fortune Charumbira, publicly supported Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF ahead of the 2018 elections, and he defied a court order to retract his statements.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4

Zimbabwe’s ethnic Shona majority dominates ZANU-PF, and members of the Ndebele minority have at times complained of political marginalization by both ZANU-PF and the MDC.

Women and their interests are underrepresented in the political system. The 2018 elections featured a slight decline in the number of women elected outside proportional representation. After the vote, women made up 34 percent of the parliament, down from 35 percent following the elections in 2013. The proportional representation quota expires in 2023, raising concerns about whether progress in women’s representation will be sustained. Four of 23 presidential candidates in 2018, or 17 percent, were women.

LGBT+ advocacy groups exist, but severe discrimination limits their ability to advance their interests in the political sphere.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 1 / 4

The president and parliament generally determine policies and legislation, but they lack strong electoral legitimacy, and the parliament does not serve as an effective check on executive power. In October 2019, after MDC lawmakers staged a walkout during Mnangagwa’s state of the nation address, the speaker imposed heavy financial penalties.

The military continues to play an outsized role in civilian governance. Some leading officers were appointed to the cabinet following the 2017 coup, and a series of senior commanders were rewarded with prominent ambassadorships during 2019.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4

Corruption is endemic, and past revelations of large-scale graft have not been followed by successful prosecutions. The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) was disbanded in January 2019, with the president declaring that it was “rotten.” In May, he appointed High Court judge Loice Matanda-Moyo—the wife of a former general who played a leading role in the 2017 coup and then became foreign minister—as the body’s new chair. The other new commissioners included a retired major, civil society leaders, and former opposition members of parliament.

Immediately after its composition in July, the new ZACC indicated that it was pursuing several cases involving senior government officials. Environment Minister Prisca Mupfumira was arrested that month for allegedly misusing US$95 million while overseeing pension funds in a previous cabinet post. In August, former vice president Phelekezela Mphoko was also arrested on corruption charges. The arrests drew mixed reactions, with some arguing that they were linked to factional differences within the ruling party. ZANU-PF Youth League leaders had accused more than a dozen officials and businesspeople of corruption in June, prompting similar claims in the media that the move was part of a political purge.

In September, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe reportedly froze the trading accounts of companies owned by Kudakwashe Tagwirei, an influential businessman and member of Mnangagwa’s Presidential Advisory Council. He was accused of illegal currency trading, and his companies had allegedly received millions of dollars in public funds through an agriculture program without parliamentary approval.

The need to import massive amounts of grain in the face of domestic food shortages has created opportunities for corruption. Africa Confidential reported in October 2019 that 17,000 tons of grain had been imported from Tanzania through state-led procurement deals at a cost of US$600 per ton, compared with a global market price of about US$240 per ton, raising suspicions of graft.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4

Government processes are generally opaque. While the constitution protects the right to access information, a number of restrictive laws make it very difficult for the media and citizens to obtain information from state institutions. The government suspended publication of official annualized inflation data for the second half of 2019.

In October 2019 the president urged passage of a new freedom of information bill, but civil society groups identified serious shortcomings in the draft measure, and it had yet to pass at year’s end.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 1 / 4

The constitution protects media freedom, but restrictive laws undermine this guarantee in practice. The possibility of harsh penalties, including prison sentences, for violations of laws like the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (CLCRA) contributes to self-censorship among journalists. The government pledged during 2019 to repeal and replace other problematic laws, such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which includes provisions on media regulation. However, the relevant bills remained under consideration at year’s end.

The state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), which favors ZANU-PF in its coverage, dominates broadcast media. In a country where many people rely on radio for information, media diversity is limited by authorities’ sustained refusal to grant licenses to community radio stations. Commercial radio licenses have generally gone to state-controlled companies or individuals with close links to ZANU-PF. The government also controls the two main daily newspapers, though there are several independent print outlets. In June 2019, a High Court judge upheld accusations of bias in the state media and ordered both the ZBC and state-owned newspapers to exercise impartiality and present dissenting views in their content.

Journalists continued to face brief detentions and assaults by police during 2019, particularly while covering protests. Media operations were also disrupted by the internet shutdown imposed in January to suppress protest activity.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4

Freedom of religion is generally respected in Zimbabwe. However, congregations perceived to be critical of the government have faced harassment.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2 / 4

The Ministry of Higher Education supervises education policy at universities, and Mnangagwa, as president, serves as the chancellor of all eight state-run universities. The government has the authority to discipline students and faculty at state-run universities. Students have at times faced violent police responses to campus protests.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1 / 4

Zimbabweans have enjoyed some freedom and openness in private discussion, but official monitoring of public gatherings, prosecution of offenses like insulting or undermining the president, and the threat of political violence all serve as deterrents to unfettered speech. Individuals have been arrested for critical posts on social media, prompting self-censorship online.

Crackdowns on dissent after the 2018 elections, during the January 2019 protests, and throughout 2019 included scores of incidents in which individuals were abducted and beaten in apparent reprisal for their political expression. The victims included, but were not limited to, political and civic activists. In one high-profile case in August, Samantha Kureya, a popular comedian and actor known as Gonyeti, was abducted by armed men who stripped and assaulted her and forced her to drink sewage before releasing her.

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because the continuing persecution of dissidents and activists has encouraged greater self-censorship among ordinary people.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4

Freedom of assembly is guaranteed in the constitution but poorly upheld in practice. MOPA, a new measure meant to replace the highly restrictive POSA, was signed into law in November 2019. However, MOPA still grants police broad authority to prohibit and regulate assemblies, requires advance notice of public gatherings, and holds organizers responsible for any damage or injury caused by an illegal assembly, among other problematic provisions.

In January 2019, the government deployed the police and military to quash protests triggered by a 150 percent hike in fuel prices, along with other economic woes. In February, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum reported extensive human rights violations during the crackdown, documenting 17 extrajudicial killings, 17 cases of rape and sexual assault, 26 cases of abduction, 61 displacements, 81 gunshot injuries, at least 586 cases of assaults, torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment including dog bites, and 954 arrests. The government’s response also included a weeklong shutdown of internet service and social media access.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1 / 4

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active, but they remain subject to restrictions under laws such as the CLCRA and the Private Voluntary Organisations Act, despite rights laid out for them in the constitution.

The civil society sector suffered an increase in repression in 2019. In March 2019, a provincial administrator in Masvingo issued a directive banning the work of a local youth organization that was accused of dabbling in politics and failing to register under the PVO Act. The government in December 2018 had threatened to deregister organizations accused of pursuing political objectives. However, the ban on the youth group was reversed by the High Court later in March. The director of the organization was among at least 22 individuals—including NGO and labor activists—who were charged with treason or subversion over the course of the year. Civic activists were also frequently the targets of extralegal abductions, physical abuse, and other forms of intimidation during 2019.

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to persistent harassment of civil society groups and activists, including via deregistration threats and arrests on serious charges such as subversion and treason.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1 / 4

The Labour Act gives the government broad authority to veto collective bargaining agreements it deems harmful to the economy, and to regulate trade unions’ internal operations. Strikes are banned in “essential” industries and subject to procedural restrictions, though they occur in practice. Due to the unemployment and heightened informal employment that have accompanied Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, trade unions are grossly underfunded.

Worsening economic conditions in 2019 led to strikes and labor protests by doctors, teachers, and civil servants. While the authorities appeared to tolerate some of these actions, leaders of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and the Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe were charged with subversion, partly for their role in organizing mass protests in January. Striking workers also faced dismissal in some cases. Labor leaders were among those who faced extralegal abductions and physical abuse during the year. For example, in September the leader of a doctors’ union was reportedly abducted by unidentified men, detained and abused for four days, then released outside the capital.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4

Pressure on the courts to endorse executive actions and generally protect the interests of the ruling party has substantially eroded judicial independence. While judges occasionally rule against the government even in politically sensitive cases, such decisions are increasingly rare. The High Court ruling to uphold a police ban on opposition-led protests in August 2019 was seen as an indicator of this trend, as courts had often reversed police bans on demonstrations in the past, and permitted assemblies by other groups later in the year.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4

Due process protections stipulated in the constitution are not enforced. Police and other security personnel frequently ignore basic rights regarding detention, searches, and seizures, and accused persons are often held and interrogated for hours without legal counsel or explanation of the reason for their arrest. Perceived opponents of the regime faced arbitrary arrests and detentions throughout 2019.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4

Security forces backed by ZANU-PF have long engaged in acts of extralegal violence, including against opposition supporters, and impunity is the norm for such abuses. Detainees and protesters often face police brutality, sometimes resulting in death. The security crackdown associated with the January 2019 protests included 17 fatalities and hundreds of cases of torture or other forms of egregious physical abuse.

Despite some improvements in recent years, prison conditions are harsh and at times life-threatening. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and food shortages have contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other illnesses among inmates.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4

While discrimination on the basis of a broad range of characteristics is prohibited under the 2013 constitution, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is not expressly prohibited. Sex between men is a criminal offense and can be punished with a fine and up to a year in prison. The country’s land and indigenization policies have been criticized for discriminating against the white Zimbabwean minority. Despite legal protections against gender discrimination, women face significant disadvantages in practice, including in employment and compensation.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2 / 4

Movement within the country is impaired by extensive use of police roadblocks, which have reappeared in recent years as authorities seek to suppress protests. In August 2019, police at roadblocks around the capital conducted identity checks and forced passengers without documents to leave buses and other vehicles and continue their journeys on foot, in apparent violation of the law. The restrictions formed part of the government’s enforcement of a ban on planned opposition protests.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4

Land rights in Zimbabwe are poorly protected, and in rural areas, the nationalization of land has left both commercial farmers and smallholders with limited security of tenure. Controversies persist over efforts to enact new land reforms. Mnangagwa has stated that his administration will not reverse Mugabe’s land reforms, but his administration has also indicated that the interests of remaining white farmers will be protected. A Land Commission tasked with auditing farm ownership and use finally began work in October 2018.

Women face discrimination in terms of access to and ownership of land, particularly communal or family land controlled by traditional leaders or male relatives.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4

Laws on personal status matters such as marriage and divorce are generally equitable, but customary practices put women at a disadvantage. Domestic violence is a problem, and sexual abuse is widespread, especially against girls. Child marriages are illegal, but factors such as poverty, certain religious views, and lack of strong enforcement mechanisms have sustained the practice; nearly a third of girls are married by age 18. The Termination of Pregnancy Act makes abortion illegal except in very limited circumstances. Same-sex marriages are prohibited by the constitution.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4

Due to an ongoing economic crisis, many workers are not adequately compensated, and some have gone for months without pay. Inflation was estimated at about 300 percent as of late 2019, when the government attempted to introduce a new currency to ease a cash shortage, and it continued to rise through the end of the year. A 2019 assessment by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index categorized Zimbabwe as one of the worst countries to work in. A previous assessment said that just 15.5 percent of workers in 2017 had formal contracts, leaving the majority of workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

The government has continued efforts to combat human trafficking, though it remains a serious problem. Men, women, and children can be found engaged in forced labor in the agricultural sector, forced begging, and forced domestic work. Women and girls remain particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.