Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Marondera, Zimbabwe, on March 12. Jekesai Njikizana/AFP via Getty Images

On a late morning in mid-August, two U.S. Senate aides were sitting at an outdoor cafe in Harare, Zimbabwe, with a civil society activist, when someone approached them with a warning. They were being tailed and filmed by another man in the cafe, whom the spotter suspected was a member of the Zimbabwean government’s security services.

The two aides work for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and were on an official visit to the southern African country organized in concert with the U.S. Embassy to meet with human rights advocates and other civil society leaders and hear firsthand accounts of Zimbabwe’s deteriorating political and human rights situation under President Emmerson Mnangagwa. (They requested meetings with the Zimbabwean government, most of which were declined.)

After departing their meeting with the activist, they got into a U.S. Embassy vehicle, one of a fleet of clearly marked American government cars with diplomatic plates driven by an embassy staffer. They were driving away when several cars slotted into the road in front of them, to the side, and behind them. Suddenly, their car was boxed in.

On a late morning in mid-August, two U.S. Senate aides were sitting at an outdoor cafe in Harare, Zimbabwe, with a civil society activist, when someone approached them with a warning. They were being tailed and filmed by another man in the cafe, whom the spotter suspected was a member of the Zimbabwean government’s security services.

The two aides work for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and were on an official visit to the southern African country organized in concert with the U.S. Embassy to meet with human rights advocates and other civil society leaders and hear firsthand accounts of Zimbabwe’s deteriorating political and human rights situation under President Emmerson Mnangagwa. (They requested meetings with the Zimbabwean government, most of which were declined.)

After departing their meeting with the activist, they got into a U.S. Embassy vehicle, one of a fleet of clearly marked American government cars with diplomatic plates driven by an embassy staffer. They were driving away when several cars slotted into the road in front of them, to the side, and behind them. Suddenly, their car was boxed in.

At one point, according to one official briefed on the matter, they tried to call the U.S. Embassy for help, but their phones all lost reception, apparently simultaneously. They were on their own. After a tense standoff, as the phalanx of cars crawled along the road, the driver of the U.S. Embassy car saw an opening and swerved onto a side road to escape the tail. They rushed back to the U.S. Embassy compound before the pursuing cars could intercept them. From there, the U.S. Embassy worked to quickly ferry the two Senate staffers out of the country without further incident.

The ordeal, described to Foreign Policy by four current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter, stunned U.S. diplomats and left them questioning what would have happened to the two Senate aides had the embassy vehicle not been able to make its escape. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak on the matter publicly.

The officials, who suspected Zimbabwean security services orchestrated the entire incident, said it underscored the increasingly brazen tactics of Mnangagwa’s government to suppress and intimidate political opponents and civil society activists as he strengthens his grip on power ahead of national elections next year. However, all of the officials cautioned that they couldn’t say with certainty who followed the staffers and chased the U.S. Embassy car.

The incident incensed U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who sent a letter to President Joe Biden informing him of the harassment and car chase his staffers experienced. In the letter, he urged Biden to step up U.S. attention on the “dire” repressive political atmosphere in Zimbabwe and boost support for the country’s increasingly embattled civil society organizations and pro-democracy activists.

“This blatant aggression towards congressional staff, one of whom—as the Zimbabweans surely know served as a senior advisor to you for many years when you were Chairman and Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee—was meant to intimidate the staff themselves, and to send a message to the United States: our support of Zimbabweans working to defend democracy is unwelcome by those who hold power,” Menendez wrote in his letter to Biden dated Sept. 12, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy. Menendez did not name the two staffers in his letter.

“Such outrageous behavior highlights the Zimbabwean regime’s reckless disregard for international norms. If American officials are deliberately targeted, you can well imagine the violence that will be directed to Zimbabweans who dare to criticize the government.”

Menendez in his letter pushed Biden to bring up the political situation in Zimbabwe with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during their scheduled meeting at the White House on Friday. Menendez’s office did not offer additional comment on the matter.

From his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has pushed the Biden administration to put human rights and democracy at the center of its foreign-policy agenda, even at times calling out the administration when he felt it was pulling its punches on matters of human rights abroad. Menendez earlier this year criticized the State Department for not publicly declaring whether the Ethiopian government was guilty of genocide or other war crimes during its nearly two-year-long Tigray war.

The Zimbabwean Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. After this story’s publication, a State Department spokesperson confirmed what it called a “deeply concerning security incident last month” where Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff were “confronted by several vehicles in a coordinated and intimidating fashion.”

“The State Department is seriously concerned by such a brazen act of intimidation against U.S. officials,” the spokesperson added. “Since the incident, the State Department has maintained a constant line of communication with the Government of Zimbabwe to emphasize the gravity of the situation and reiterate the need to hold the wrongdoers accountable.”

For decades, Zimbabwe’s political scene was dominated by one man: Robert Mugabe. A former bush guerrilla who led his country to independence from white-minority rule in 1980, Mugabe ran a government that crushed political opponents with state-sanctioned violence, and he oversaw a system riven with corruption that drove the country into poverty, hyperinflation, and economic collapse. In 2017, Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former security chief, seized power from the aging and ailing president in a coup that international observers and pro-democracy activists in the country hoped would mark a turning point away from the Mugabe era.

They were wrong. In 2018, Mnangagwa was declared the victor in the country’s first major presidential election since Mugabe’s ouster after a campaign marred by accusations of fraud, voter intimidation, and violence. (Mugabe died the following year.) Since Mnangagwa took power, he has doubled down on a strategy of political repression and violence that came to define Mugabe’s reign in power, human rights advocates say.

“We have seen a massive deterioration of the human rights situation in the country in the last few years,” said Doug Coltart, a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer and attorney at Mtetwa & Nyambirai Legal Practitioners. “The human rights situation since the coup has been worse than the last decade of Mugabe’s rule.”

In 2020, three opposition political figures and human rights activists, Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri, and Netsai Marova, were arrested during a protest and say they were abducted, tortured, and sexually assaulted by Zimbabwean intelligence agents for two days. The Zimbabwean government denied the charges and arrested the activists again a month after their abduction, accusing them of lying about their torture. Another pro-democracy activist, Moreblessing Ali, was abducted and murdered earlier this year. (The Zimbabwean government denied any role in her killing.) Human rights watchdogs have also accused the Zimbabwean government of cracking down on political opponents under the guise of enforcing public health protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another Zimbabwean pro-democracy activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said they expected the government to step up its violent crackdown on political opposition in the run-up to the country’s elections next year. Members of one of the most prominent opposition parties, the Citizens Coalition for Change, say they expect voter intimidation, ballot-rigging, and other forms of election meddling by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party to stay in control.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which is supposed to oversee the country’s elections with impartial authority, is reportedly stacked with the children of ZANU-PF stalwarts, including the daughter of a former vice president, the daughter of a former minister for mining, and the son of current Zimbabwean Foreign Affairs Minister Frederick Shava. “The 2023 election has been rigged already,” Tawanda Kasirori, an opposition member, told Al Jazeera last month.

On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions on a senior Zimbabwean security officer, Stephen Mutamba, for his role in the pressure and intimidation campaigns against political parties that oppose Mnangagwa’s rule. Menendez and his Republican counterpart on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. James Risch, publicly cheered the move. Risch suggested in a tweet that the Biden administration should consider blocking the Zimbabwean foreign minister, Shava, from being invited to the upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington in December.

“The United States continues to stand with the Zimbabwean people against unjust actions against political opponents or assaults on Zimbabwe’s democracy by the ZANU-PF,” Brian Nelson, the U.S. undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement announcing the new sanctions.

Update, Sept. 19, 2022: This article was updated to include comment from the State Department spokesperson.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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