Torture, still a weapon of choice in Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Tanzania and Uganda

14th Jul 2021

Torture, still a weapon of choice in Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Tanzania and Uganda

On 26 June, the world commemorated International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. The prohibition of torture is enshrined in many international and regional human rights instruments including the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which states that:

“Every individual shall have the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in a human being and to the recognition of his legal status. All forms of exploitation and degradation of man, particularly slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment shall be prohibited.”

Yet across the world torture is still a weapon of choice against dissent, practiced during and outside legal detention as well as outside of the state’s purview. In June 2020, the UN Committee Against Torture and other UN committees unanimously warned that the pandemic was leading to an escalation of torture and ill-treatment worldwide, and that torture victims “may also lack the living conditions that allow them to guard against the spread of the virus.”

However, since that statement, there is evidence that Covid-19 has exacerbated the risk of ill-treatment and torture in Africa. Security authorities are increasingly silencing human rights defenders and civilians under the guise of ‘curbing the spread of the virus.’ In this article, we look at some of the countries resorting to torture.

Zimbabwe continues to use torture to silence dissent. Due to the conflation between the state and the ruling party, authorities are notorious for unleashing the state security apparatus, as well as party activists mainly youths and war veterans.

In May 2020, three young female leaders from the Movement for Democratic Change-Alliance (MDC-Alliance) Hon Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova disappeared after being detained by police on allegations of involvement in  an unsanctioned anti-government protest. The trio revealed gory details of the torture and sexual abuse that they suffered at the hands of the state security agents including gun barrels being shoved into their private parts. Their abusers remain unidentified and walk the streets free with impunity. Instead, it is the three young female youth leaders who have suffered repeated violations being accused of faking the abduction and being detained repeatedly often for long periods without bail at Chikurubi Maximum prison. They have been under a persistent climate of torture and uncertainty since that time.

A 22-year-old journalism student, Tawanda Muchehiwa, was also abducted and severely tortured by close to 20 men on the morning of July 30 2020. Like the renowned investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume, Muchehiwa was targeted for his ‘involvement’ in coordinating the July 31 anti-government protests.

His abduction was caught on video from CCTV footage and there is impeccable evidence connecting the abduction to a vehicle hired from a private company Impala Car Rentals that have car hire businesses spanning across Southern Africa.

The abductors and Impala Car Hire have remained unaccountable. Instead, it is innocent youth leaders such as Makomborero Haruzivishe, Takudzwa Ngadziore and Nancy Njege who have been beaten, assaulted, abducted and arbitrary arrested and detained for demanding justice against Impala Car Hire and the abductors of Tawanda Muchehiwa.

In a move calculated to circumvent any international censure, rights groups in Zimbabwe say the government is targeting critics with a planned amendment to the Criminal Law by introducing the Patriotism Bill. The new law would, among other things, make it illegal for Zimbabweans to have ‘unauthorized’ communications with foreign governments or to make unsubstantiated claims of torture or abduction. 

To complement such repressive legislation the various provincial administrators have also been issuing out letters demanding that civil society produce Memorandum of Understanding for any work that they do in the communities failing which their work will be stopped. These illegal administrative actions that are not backed by any statute are seen as meant to prevent effective monitoring of the serial use of organised violence and torture as an instrument of control of civic space in Zimbabwe.

Pressure is mounting on the government of Eswatini and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to urgently intervene and help address the situation there. The political and security crisis has been going on for months following the alleged killing of Thabani Nkomonye – a law student at the University of Swaziland – by the police in May 2021.

Although authorities say that they initiated an investigation into the killing, the June 24 decree by King Mswati III, banning citizens from sending petitions to parliamentarians to demand democratic reforms, marked an unprecedented escalation of protests. Protesters also accused the royal family, including the king’s 15 wives, of enjoying a publicly funded lavish lifestyle while the majority of the country’s 1.1 million people live in poverty.

According to reports, the government’s response has led to further human rights abuses. The authorities responded by imposing an internet blackout, banning protests and deploying soldiers and the police to disperse protesters. The national police commissioner, William Dlamini, warned that there would be “zero-tolerance” of breaches of the ban.

Up to 80 people were killed by state security forces while hundreds were hospitalized for injuries, including gunshot wounds sustained from live ammunition fired by the police.

The situation is degenerating into a humanitarian crisis as well. Insecurity has disrupted markets, as business owners closed their premises, leaving people with no food and more vulnerable to contracting the Covid-19 virus as they queue for groceries in the few shops that are open. 

Despite Eswatini being a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), the situation in Eswatini has been going on for years.

In March, Human Rights Watch warned of a ‘drastic deterioration in human rights in the country. In a report submitted to the United Nations (UN) Universal Periodic Review of Eswatini, Human Rights Watch detailed how there had been no progress on essential rights reforms, including the removal of all legislative and practical restrictions to free exercise of civil and political rights, in particular, those related to freedom of association and expression to allow the registration and operation of political parties; and introducing greater political freedoms through free, fair, transparent democratic elections.

Elections and torture

Incidences of torture normally coincide with elections when the political contest is at its fiercest. In Tanzania, state security forces had killed at least 22 people, while at least 77 opposition leaders and supporters had been arbitrarily detained and tortured between 28 October (General Election date) and 11 November 2020.

Several opposition party supporters and party leaders were severely assaulted by police while being interrogated for disputing the election results. Security forces indiscriminately used excessive force, including live ammunition, to disperse protesters. According to Amnesty International, security forces also used torture to extract “confessions” from the victims. 

In power since 1986, Yoeweri Museveni has been widely accused of using security forces to suppress opposition to his rule. While campaigning for political change and ‘people power,’ opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine faced massive police brutality before, during and after the 14 January 2021 General Election. Even before Bobi Wine had announced his intention to contest for the presidency, he had been tortured and assaulted multiple times as one of the new cohorts of young and outspoken opposition Members of Parliament (MPs). When the leader of the opposition himself can be so inhumanely treated, we can expect the worst to visit their vulnerable supporters.

Over 600 opposition members reportedly suffered systematic torture, detention in harsh conditions in often secret prisons and denial of access to relatives or lawyers. Some detainees had joints or genitals beaten with wires, burnt with cigarettes, or had fingernails torn out, others were shot in the legs or even killed during the campaign period. 

On April 19, 2020, police arrested and later beat parliamentarian Francis Zaake for distributing food to the public as part of Covid-19 relief assistance in Mityana. Police held him for several days at the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in Kireka, Kampala, but released him on bond on April 27. Zaake accused police and military officers of torturing him while he was in detention.

Torture in prisons and places of detention:

Perhaps more frightening is that much of this torture takes place inside official, law enforcement institutions like prisons, ironically at the hands of law enforcement officers.

Although torture is outlawed in Lesotho, reports suggest that police continue to torture suspects and subject them to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

In its 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour noted that there were worrying reports of torture in Lesotho.

Numerous abuses were noted. On July 8 2020, the Moafrika Community Broadcasting Service reported that Mabote police officers tortured the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) Special Operations Unit member Lebusa Setlojoane and his relative Lefu Setlojoane, with electrical shocks and suffocation to force him to confess to committing arson and homicide. Setlojoane stated he was threatened with death if he reported the abuse to judicial authorities.

While torture is also illegal in Nigeria, images from social media show that a particular form of torture – a technique known as ‘tabay’ – is widely used in the interrogation and punishment of detainees, including children. Torture has killed more people than Covid-19 in Nigeria lately. By early April 2021, more people had died as a result of lockdown enforcement measures by security forces than from Covid-19 showing the staggering impact of the practice of torture in Nigeria.  

Although the Constitution of Malawi prohibits the use of torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment; the police have been accused of using excessive force and other unlawful practices, including torture, to extract confessions from suspects. The police have also been accused of demanding sexual favours from sex workers or risk being arrested. 

In a report issued in 2020, the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) stated that torture was widespread in prisons. In February 2019, a man identified as Buleya Lule died while in police custody in Lilongwe, just hours after appearing in court as one of six suspects in the abduction of Goodson Makanjira, a 14-year-old boy with albinism. Upon further investigation, it emerged that the deceased was tortured to death. 

Torture in the form of starvation has also been rampant in Malawi. A 2017 study revealed that virtually all prisoners are food insecure and subsist on only one meal a day. Over the years, it has often been reported that prisoners go for days and even weeks without food when procurement, cooking or electricity problems strike.

In the DRC, human rights activists are vulnerable to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. Emmanuel Kabuka, a human rights activist and member of the NGO Héritiers de la Justice (Heirs of Justice), was arrested in February 2017 for opposing the arbitrary arrest of two women from his village. In detention and out of sight, Kabuka was tortured. The police beat him, with their fists and with an iron club.

Several other NGOs, including Freedom from Torture, also noted that torture was often used “to punish political and human rights activists, and to discourage any future action.” The World Organization against Torture has described the situation in the DRC as an “open secret.”

The military, police, and intelligence services in the DRC have routinely tortured political and rights activists, including by gang rape, choking and electric shock. The general climate of impunity only worsens the situation. Perpetrators of human rights violations are never prosecuted, allowing torture and other cruel acts to flourish. 

In Zambia, the Human Rights Commission says it remains deeply concerned that perpetrators of acts of torture continue being charged with lesser offences of assault than the grave nature of torture owing to the absence of the law criminalising torture in the country. The Commission has urged the government to speed up the process of enacting the law criminalising torture to provide appropriate punishment to perpetrators, and remedies to victims of torture.

Torture in ‘ungoverned spaces’ and non-state actors

Torture is also happening outside the view of state authorities in ungoverned spaces.

Over the past few years, there has been a steady wave of unregulated, illegal and dangerous migration from Africa to Europe in search of opportunities. This is actually human trafficking and the precarious journey, which involves crossing the Libya desert, and navigating the Mediterreean Sea in unsafe boats is fraught with all sorts of predicaments for the often unsuspecting migrants.

Jan-Philipp Scholz a correspondent for Deutsche Welle recently investigated and documented horrible abuse in the desert of detention centres in southern Libya. In that region, there are many so-called private prisons run by human trafficking networks where thousands of migrants end up. They are severely abused and mistreated for ransom. The abusers do everything simply to get a few hundred euros.

Mozambique has been battling militants in the Cabo Delgado region for over two years now. It turns out that atrocities and many forms of torture are being perpetrated not only by the militants (Al Shaabab), but government forces as well including private military contractors (in particular the Dyck Advisory Group). 

In a report issued in March 2021, Amnesty International revealed that hundreds of civilians in Mozambique have been unlawfully killed by ‘Al-Shabaab.’ The military and police have also committed extrajudicial executions and acts of torture and other ill-treatment, and have mutilated bodies. Some of the victims were blindfolded and shot, before being dumped in mass graves, while women were raped.

In September 2020, video footage emerged showing Mozambique’s security forces torturing and abusing militants. The advocacy group has called for independent investigations, but the spokesperson for Mozambique’s Defense Ministry says the videos shouldn’t be taken seriously.


Save for a very few, national constitutions across Africa contain laws that expressly outlaw torture in conformity with international human rights law and relevant conventions that state parties are signatories to. However, the stark difference between what’s in the statute books and the realities on the ground could not be more astounding: torture is still pervasive, perpetrated mainly by the state or its agents. 

Impunity and lack of justice for the victims of torture must end. The fight against torture must go on and be escalated as UN Secretary-General António Guterres has stressed:

“Torturers must never be allowed to get away with their crimes, and systems that enable torture should be dismantled or transformed.” African states are therefore encouraged to enact legislation criminalising torture so that the legal framework can allow for escalation of the fight against torture, cruel, inhuman and other degrading treatment.


SAHRDN is in partnership with the Daily Maverick on the weekly Human Rights Round-Up is meant to give snapshots of the main human rights news that happens in Southern African countries, particularly related to the growing Covid-19 crisis. By telling and reflecting on these stories it is hoped this will contribute towards integrating the efforts of human rights defenders across the region. It is also intended to inform the policy community of the main threats confronting human rights defenders.


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