Mnangagwa catches critics off-guard, embraces surprising freedoms


Zimbabwe's new President is rolling out freedoms as never seen before in the country recovering from the 37-year grip of former leader Robert Mugabe, Associated Press reports.

For some, however, President Emmerson Mnangagwa is going too far. Others accuse him of mere window-dressing ahead of July's historic election.

Signs of change are clear. Late last month, a popular musician returned from exile in the United States to perform protest songs in front of tens of thousands of people on the outskirts of the capital, Harare.

Days later, an annual arts festival in Harare was allowed to invite as its headline act a South African band once banned for a video seen as mocking Mugabe.

Mnangagwa promised democratic reforms when he took over in November after Mugabe resigned under pressure from the military, ruling party and the public.

Many have been closely watching Mugabe's former deputy ever since for proof that he means it.

Arrests of political activists and opposition officials, once routine during Mugabe's rule, have significantly slowed.

The opposition has been holding campaign rallies without interference, unlike in the past.

Freedom of speech is remarkably improved, with Zimbabweans openly criticizing the government without fear of retribution, especially in urban areas.

In rural areas, non-governmental groups say they are still recording some cases of intimidation such as village heads demanding people's voter registration details.

And on Wednesday, Mnangagwa publicly criticized his own ruling party for using police officers as polling agents during its internal elections, a first in a country long used to Mugabe's sharp-tongued defense of deploying security agents to conduct party business.

Mnangagwa has received widespread support for that and similar gestures.

But the new President, whose administration has popularized the term "Zimbabwe is open for business" after years of international sanctions over human rights abuses, also has touched a nerve in the largely conservative country with certain decisions.

His government has legalized marijuana farming for medicinal and scientific purposes.

It allowed commercial sex workers to exhibit at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair, an event officially opened by Mnangagwa himself, as a way to educate the public about their work and safe sexual practices.

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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