Human rights organizations claim that Sikhala and other opposition activists are the focus of Zimbabwean authorities that “weaponize the law.”
Zimbabwe’s Harare – The previous 17 months that Job “Wiwa” Sikhala has been detained in pre-trial custody at Zimbabwe’s Chikurubi maximum-security prison represent the longest period of time an opposition politician has been detained in this capacity in almost 40 years.
The 51-year-old attorney, however, is no stranger to jail life: since entering partisan politics in 1999 with the founding of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the country’s main opposition for many years, this is his 65th arrest.
In June 2022, Sikhala was most recently taken into custody. He was apparently alleging that the governing party had slain opposition activist Moreblessing Ali, which is how the police claim he was delaying justice and instigating public unrest.
“Mostly false accusations led to my father’s incarceration. Job Sikhala Jr., a second-year law student and the eldest of his 16 children, tells Al Jazeera that this is the reason he has never been found guilty in the nearly 65 cases in which he has been prosecuted.
The younger Sikhala witnessed his father being arrested by a bunch of guys when he was five years old. His kid recalls that he was cheerful when, a few days later, dad returned free. And over time, that trend has persisted.
His 23-year-old son added, “[Now] I am older and understand what is going on.” It’s the politics.
Long-term detentions have also been suffered by other opponents of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration.
Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist, was detained for forty-five days in 2020, allegedly for instigating antigovernment demonstrations. In 2020, opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume suffered a similar fate after being imprisoned for more than a month for planning demonstrations against official corruption. Parere Kunyenzura, another opposition leader, was detained in pretrial custody for over a hundred days for calling an unauthorized church gathering.
The early going
Sikhala was born in rural Masvingo in 1972. After completing high school, he traveled to Harare to enroll at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) in 1995. There, he studied law and history and graduated with degrees. During the 1990s, which are regarded as the peak years of student activity in the nation, Sikhala had his first experience in student politics. Before long, his confrontational style of leadership at the school had won him an army of followers.
Nixon Nyikadzino, a former student leader at UZ at the time, recalls to FM that “the name Wiwa came about when he started talking a lot about Ken Saro-Wiwa, his work, and his revolutionary activities in Nigeria and he was also reading the books that he wrote around certain social, political, and economic issues in his home country.”
A member of the Ogoni ethnic group in Nigeria, Saro-Wiwa fought against the pollution and environmental damage caused by major oil firms like Royal Dutch Shell operating in Ogoniland. The dictator Sani Abacha ultimately had Saro-Wiwa executed under dubious circumstances.
Sikhala has faced oppressive regimes like those of Mnangagwa and his predecessor, Robert Mugabe, much like his idol.
Zimbabwe’s antiriot police have a long history of being known for their harsh tactics. However, during the peak of student activism in the 1990s, Sikhala faced a unit at the University of Zimbabwe while she was a young leader of the student body.
The activist and former student leader Nyikadzino told Al Jazeera, “He was beaten up.”
According to Nyikadzino, Sikhala continued to scream obscenities at the antiriot police after receiving beatings. His peers continued to admire him as a courageous and daring student leader as a result of that act of resistance.
“You can still see that same trait in him today,” he continued.
Career in politics
At 27, Sikhala became a member of MDC.
He was chosen to serve as a member of parliament for the St. Mary’s district in 2002, joining a growing number of youthful politicians who were gaining national attention. He quickly rose to prominence as a political rebel in Zimbabwe, bringing his well-known bravery from his time as a student into mainstream politics.
He got into controversy with the Robert Mugabe government the next year after it was reported that he had attacked five Masvingo locals and set fire to a state transportation utility bus. Of those accusations, he was exonerated.
He was a member of the Save Zimbabwe campaign in the late 2000s, which was an alliance of opposition parties, civil society organizations, and church groups that often voiced their disapproval of Mugabe’s one-party rule and the country’s economic situation.
The volatile Sikhala was accused with treason in 2014 after it was claimed that he intended to overthrow Mugabe. He was admitted to the hospital as a result of the severe torture he endured, yet he was found not guilty on any count. Sikhala was charged with treason once more by the Emmerson Mnangagwa regime in 2019, but he was cleared by February 2020. At that time, Sikhala held the post of deputy national chairperson of an MDC group that later changed its name to the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), Zimbabwe’s principal opposition.
Sikhala was added by the police to a list of those who were active in organizing the demonstrations and were often seen as troublemakers on the eve of an antigovernment demonstration scheduled for July 2020. The demonstrations never took place since the organizers were taken into custody.
After going into hiding, Sikhala recorded a video of himself in the jungle getting food from kind neighbors. In the video, he declared, “If we stop fighting these guys, we will end up dying, all of us with nothing.” “They have long held this nation as a hostage.”
After a few weeks, he was arrested.
In May of this year, Sikhala was arrested on further counts of inciting violence and disorderly behavior, but he was later granted a suspended six-month sentence with the possibility of a $600 fine. He has never been convicted before.
Sikhala’s ongoing arrest, according to his party, the CCC, is proof of “judicial capture by the regime.”
Spokesman for the CCC interim youth Wing Stephen Chuma stated, “More importantly, Job Sikhala’s continued detention is a reflection that we have many ordinary citizens languishing in our country’s jails without trial.” “Sikhala is not a criminal; rather, he is a hero for the people of Zimbabwe who aspires to a better country where everyone’s fundamental rights are upheld.”
The deputy director of Amnesty International for East and Southern Africa, Khanyo Farise, asked Harare to desist from “weaponizing the law to target opposition figures and ordinary citizens,” arguing that everyone has the fundamental right to a fair trial.
Farise said Al Jazeera, “[His] prolonged detention while he awaits trial is an indictment of Zimbabwe’s judicial system and a gross miscarriage of justice.” It is a prime example of how the government is exploiting the legal system to stifle journalists, activists, human rights advocates, opposition leaders, and other dissident voices.
Despite this, Sikhala has continued to write letters with harsh language and an unwavering spirit from Chikurubi, a prison that holds some of the most dangerous offenders in the nation.
On his birthday last month, he said, addressing the administration, “I am the spoiler of their comfort, an irritant causing people sleepless nights, disturbing the comfort of their power.” “People in Zimbabwe and throughout the world have recognized it for what it is. Prosecution by prosecution is an antiquated tactic used by despotic rulers.
“They say my mouth is vicious and dangerous, spitting venom and causing havoc; I had to be silenced even if it meant assassinating me. My mouth had become more dangerous than a loaded gun.”
His relatives are also concerned that he could not be freed anytime soon.
“We are agitated, scared, and irritated. Sikhala Jr. told Al Jazeera, “We have given up hope that our father will be freed anytime soon because we have seen other individuals jailed and released on the similar allegations. We only await God’s appointed moment for his release. God is now in control of it.