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Let Cecil the lion’s death shine light on Zimbabwe’s human rights abuses (COMMENTARY)

Stuffed animals left by protesters block the doorway of River Bluff Dental clinic in Bloomington, Minn., after the killing of a famous lion in Zimbabwe, July 28, 2015. Wildlife officials on Tuesday accused an American hunter of killing Cecil, one of the oldest and most famous lions in Zimbabwe, without a permit after paying $50,000 to two people who lured the beast to its death. The lion was lured out of Hwange National Park using a bait and was shot by dentist Walter James Palmer. Photo courtesy REUTERS/David Bailey
Stuffed animals left by protesters block the doorway of River Bluff Dental clinic in Bloomington, Minn., after the killing of a famous lion in Zimbabwe, July 28, 2015. Wildlife officials on Tuesday accused an American hunter of killing Cecil, one of the oldest and most famous lions in Zimbabwe, without a permit after paying $50,000 to two people who lured the beast to its death. The lion was lured out of Hwange National Park using a bait and was shot by dentist Walter James Palmer. Photo courtesy REUTERS/David Bailey

Stuffed animals left by protesters block the doorway of River Bluff Dental clinic in Bloomington, Minn., after the killing of a famous lion in Zimbabwe, July 28, 2015. Wildlife officials on Tuesday accused an American hunter of killing Cecil, one of the oldest and most famous lions in Zimbabwe, without a permit after paying $50,000 to two people who lured the beast to its death. The lion was lured out of Hwange National Park using a bait and was shot by dentist Walter James Palmer. Photo courtesy REUTERS/David Bailey

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (RNS) When an American friend posted news of Cecil the lion’s death Tuesday (July 28) on Facebook, I was touched. That poor lion. That despicable dentist. I added a frowny face to the comments section and moved on.

When I returned to Facebook a few hours later, my news feed was flooded with sheer outrage at Cecil’s gruesome assassination. Virtual memorials started popping up. #CecilTheLion became a top trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. My frowny face quickly morphed into one of full-blown confusion.

When a lion killed an American woman last month in South Africa, where I now live, the story made a few headlines, but the Internet did not melt. Perhaps Americans assume “lion bites woman” is the African equivalent of “dog bites man” — too ordinary to merit mention.

But when man bites dog, or when man shoots lion with an arrow, Americans conjure up images of Simba and Mufasa, the only reference many have to a continent of 1.1 billion people three times the size of their own country, and they lose their proverbial scat.

Assuming Zimbabwe won’t make the news again until dictator Robert Mugabe finally dies, allow me to capitalize on Cecil’s demise with a quick rundown of the country’s atrocious human rights record.

President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe arrives to attend Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly in Omdurman, June 2, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe arrives to attend Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly in Omdurman on June 2, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

1. “President” Robert Mugabe has been in power for 35 years.

When President Obama told the African Union on Tuesday that “nobody should be president for life,” he probably had Robert Mugabe in mind. The 91-year-old dictator has been in power for nearly 35 years, initially as prime minister. He upgraded to president a few hours after I was born in December of 1987.

In the early 1980s, Prime Minister Mugabe orchestrated the massacre of more than 20,000 people for political gain. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, President Mugabe proudly oversaw Zimbabwe’s complete economic destruction when he seized land from some 4,000 white farmers and redistributed it to black farmers without ensuring that they knew how to adequately cultivate it. When Zimbabwe’s agriculture-based economy dried up as predicted, the country printed more money. Inflation peaked at 8 billion percent in 2008 before authorities stopped trying to track it. Last month you could buy 35 quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars for $1. That’s 35 followed by 15 zeros.

2. Expression is far from free.

Zimbabwe’s Declaration of Rights, adopted along with a new constitution in 2013, guarantees freedom of conscience, assembly, expression and association. Nice in theory, but hard to uphold when repressive laws that strangle these rights are still being enforced. Journalists face criminal prosecution for doing their job. Protesters are arrested and beaten. Religious groups and leaders are harassed.

3. Women face discrimination and abuse. 

The government’s failure to uphold the Declaration of Rights hits women especially hard. Illegal discrimination keeps many women out of the workforce. Those who do enter the formal labor market face sexual harassment more often than men, and the crime is often ignored. One-third of girls marry before age 18. Illegal forced marriages still occur, often accompanied by domestic violence and sexual assault. According to Freedom House, a third of girls do not attend primary school and two-thirds do not attend secondary school “due to poverty, abuse, and discriminatory cultural practices.”

4. LGBT rights are nonexistent.

Zimbabwe’s constitution guarantees fundamental rights and freedoms to everyone regardless of “race, tribe, place of origin, political opinions, color, creed or sex.” Notably absent from that list are sexual orientation and gender. Gay sex is illegal, subject to a fine and one year in prison. LGBT activists face arbitrary arrest and harassment by police. Mugabe has publicly told gay people, whom he considers lower than “pigs, goats and birds,” to go to “hell.”  After SCOTUS made gay marriage legal in all 50 U.S. states last month, Mugabe mocked the decision and joked that he would propose to Obama, who is still waiting for a ring.

5. Property rights are a pipe dream.

The Declaration of Rights devotes more than 2,000 words to a section titled “Protection from deprivation of property,” which might have something to do with that whole land reclamation mess mentioned earlier. Despite the provision, police continue to seize and demolish homes. After thousands of people displaced by floods protested being moved to a disputed transit camp, police beat and arrested 300 of them and even burned some of their temporary tents. Elsewhere, others’ homes were demolished without necessary court orders, and the government continues to seize commercial land owned by white farmers.

If after reading this you’re still crying for Cecil the lion, conjure up a few tears for Zimbabwe’s 14 million quadrillionaires who wake up each morning to Dictator Mugabe’s economic and political tyranny.

(Brian Pellot is director of global strategy at Religion Newswriters Foundation and a contributing editor and columnist at Religion News Service.)

YS/MG END PELLOT

About the author

Brian Pellot

Brian Pellot is based in Cape Town, South Africa.

29 Comments

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  • You make excellent points. The death of Cecil at first glance seems insignificant in the face of the atrocities you outline in your article. But to me Cecil’s death speaks to something bigger: a worldwide problem of privilege – white privilege regarding the now infamous dentist, but also privilege of wealth and ego – patriarchal privilege. Worldwide women, children, the old, the infirm are being murdered or hurt in some way. ISIS has no problem killing anyone who gets in the way of their mission. Grieving Cecil is a way for many to take insurmountable evil and put it into a collective howl. Maybe a roar. The sheer arrogance of luring an animal from its shelter and murdering it is a stand-in for so much more.

  • I agree that an animal is an animal, but where is the mention here of the unborn who are being slaughtered in the womb here in America?

  • Uh, Greg, stop trying to insert your agenda.

    And what a lowly attempt you made at that, and what a sneaky tactic, too. You stink.

  • Stan, the writer brought up every comparison but the most pertinent one. I only wanted to point out his oversight. The point being we have no room to criticize the Zimbabwe government on secondary matters, when we have bigger issues. What’s the saying? People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones?

  • Joy,
    ” Grieving Cecil is a way for many to take insurmountable evil and put it into a collective howl. Maybe a roar. The sheer arrogance of luring an animal from its shelter and murdering it is a stand-in for so much more. ”

    How true.

  • Until you can find a way to put a fetus under protective custody, all you are saying is you think women are nothing more than breeding receptacles. Your agenda is very much like like Robert Mugabe’s.

    Stan is right, your reference was self-serving irrelevant nonsense for this article.

  • It is possible to weep for the people AND the animals of Zimbabwe. As an individual, there is little I can do to get Mugabe out of office or to change the government of that country. But I can express outrage over the disgusting practice of luring an animal to a place where it can be wounded and hunted for 40 agonizing hours before being killed. I can express outrage over rich men paying lots of money to kill animals for fun and to remind themselves that they’re at the top of the food chain. I can contribute to organizations that protect animals and also to organizations that help humans.

  • I applaud Brian Pellot for drawing much-needed attention to the human rights abuses of Mugabe.

    Regarding poor Cecil the Lion, it should be added that Mugabe is himself quite a poacher…..he is part of the problem that leads to the indiscriminate slaughter of animals like Cecil.

    While I don’t believe in formal animal rights, I believe that the same values that animate human rights naturally extend to treating animals far better. God’s creation merits our respect and care. While environmental extremists and animal rights activists often take this to absurd lengths, human beings have a responsibility to be good stewards of an environment they share with other creatures.

  • Stan, Greg did precisely what Brian Pellot did; he moved from the issue of an outrageous killing of a lion to the mistreatment of human beings. While Pellot confined his extension to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Greg extended it beyond. Who’s to say that one sort of extension is legit while the other isn’t?

    And why does Greg “stink” regarding his extension? If your problem is deeply personal, that is not his problem, but your own.

  • No, Stan wants his own sacred cow of abortion to get a special dispensation here….and he’s enraged that Greg won’t grant it.

  • The obvious question here is whether the killer of the lion can be held accountable. I hope this can be done.

  • The media and the internet go on meltdown over an animal while much of the media seems to care little about the news of the clearly barbaric practices of PP. toward human babies. In fact some are more interested in killing the messenger for revealing truths some want very much to be hidden

  • Human beings come first and shame on the media for not caring enough, but there’s plenty of time and space for the media to cover the mistreatment of animals, too. All they need do is spend less time covering all the twists and turns of celebrity lives — like who lost or put on weight or who’s breaking up with whom.

  • Concern about animals is very humane and speaks well of those displaying it. Those who are cruel to animals are typically cruel to people. The key is to have a world view that is roomy enough to include both people and animals — elevating both, while at the same time not totally equating the two. Those who equate the two completely end up pulling down humanity rather than elevating animals.

  • You see a story that heavily details how Cecil is ultimately one small symptom of a country suffering under a brutal black dictator who, among many other things, has prosecuted, murdered, and expelled the white population, and your response is how it’s about white privilege. Get out.

  • Human lives matter…animal lives matter….it’s all pretty simple, but mostly ignored in this world of ours today…and which won’t always be the case.

  • You forgot to mention the massacre of the Ndebele. 20,000 massacred because they MAY have opposed Mugabe.

  • Absolutely, Fran. The Bible foretells a day when humanity and nature will be redeemed and there will be no killing anymore.

  • Unless they are pregnant women. Then their existence is purely theoretical to rhetoric like Greg’s.

  • No, Stan wanted to keep the discussion reasonably related to the topic.
    If you want to discuss abortion, do it in an article pertaining to it.

  • Greg made the same kind of extension as the author did; thus if one extension is okay, so is the other. It’s a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.

    This obviously pressed a button or two in “Stan.”

  • Well, Fran, that’s where we premil Christians and you JWs agree…on what we call the coming millennium.

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