Harare, Zimbabwe – Job “Wiwa” Sikhala has spent the last 17 months in the Chikurubi maximum-security prison, the longest stretch an opposition figure has been held in pre-trial detention in almost four decades in Zimbabwe.
But the 51-year-old lawyer is no stranger to prison life: This is his 65th arrest since his foray into partisan politics in 1999 at the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the largest opposition in the Southern African country for years.
Sikhala’s most recent arrest happened in June 2022. The authorities allege that he was obstructing justice and inciting public violence by allegedly saying the ruling party had killed Moreblessing Ali, an opposition activist.
“My father has been arrested … on mostly trumped-up charges. That is why he has never been convicted in the almost 65 times he was charged,” Job Sikhala Jnr, a second-year law student and the eldest of his 16 children, tells Al Jazeera.
When he was five years old, the younger Sikhala saw a group of men charge into their family house and arrest his father. When he returned free after a few days, he was jovial, his son remembers. And that pattern has continued over the years.
“[Now] I am older and understand what is going on,” his son, 23, said. “It’s politics.”
Other critics of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime have also endured lengthy detentions.
In 2020, journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was imprisoned for 45 days, ostensibly for inciting antigovernment protests. Opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume faced a similar fate in 2020, enduring over a month of detention for organising protests against government corruption. Another opposition figure Parere Kunyenzura also spent more than 100 days on pre-trial detention for convening an illegal church meeting.
Born in 1972 in rural Masvingo, Sikhala moved to Harare after high school to commence studies at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) in 1995 where he earned degrees in history and law. Sikhala cut his teeth in student politics in the 1990s, a period seen as the golden days of student activism in the country. Before long, he had earned himself a legion of supporters for his combative style of leadership at the school.
“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,” Nixon Nyikadzino, a former student leader at UZ at the time recalls to FM.
Saro-Wiwa, a member of the Ogoni ethnic minority in Nigeria, campaigned against environmental degradation and pollution of Ogoniland by operations of leading oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell and was eventually hanged under controversial circumstances by the dictator Sani Abacha.
Like his hero, Sikhala has battled similar tyrannical regimes of Mnangagwa and his predecessor, Robert Mugabe.
For years, Zimbabwe’s antiriot police has been infamous for its heavy-handedness. But as a young student leader at the University of Zimbabwe, Sikhala confronted a unit as it came to quell demonstrations at the institution in the 1990s at the height of student activism.
“He was beaten up,” the former student leader and activist Nyikadzino told Al Jazeera.
If anything, the beatings seemed to embolden Sikhala who kept hurling insults at the antiriot police, Nyikadzino says. That act of defiance won him enduring admiration among his contemporaries as a bold and fearless student leader.
“It’s the same trait that you see in him today,” he added.
Sikhala joined the MDC at 27.
By 2002, he was elected into parliament to represent St Mary’s constituency, becoming one of a crop of young politicians getting into the national spotlight. He soon became a known Zimbabwean political dissident, taking his famed fearlessness from his student days into mainstream politics.
The following year, he found himself in trouble with the Robert Mugabe regime for allegedly burning a bus owned by a state transport utility and assaulting five villagers in Masvingo. He was acquitted of those charges.
In the late 2000s, he was part of the Save Zimbabwe campaign, a coalition of church groups, civil societies and opposition parties that regularly spoke out against the state of the economy and what was seen as one-party rule under Mugabe.
In 2014, the mercurial Sikhala found himself facing charges of treason over allegations that he wanted to topple Mugabe. He was hospitalised due to the heavy torture he suffered but again, acquitted of all the charges. In 2019, Sikhala became deputy national chairman of an MDC faction that has since become the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), Zimbabwe’s main opposition; that year, he was charged again with treason by the Emmerson Mnangagwa administration but was exonerated by February 2020.
On the eve of a planned antigovernment demonstration in July 2020, the police included Sikhala on a list of people generally considered to be troublemakers and who were involved in planning the protests. The organisers were arrested before the demonstrations could happen.
Sikhala, who had gone into hiding, made a video of himself in the bush, receiving food from sympathetic locals. “If we stop fighting these guys we will end up dying, all of us with nothing,” he said in the video. “They have kept this country hostage for a long time.”
He was arrested a few weeks later.
This May, Sikhala was given a suspended six-month sentence and the option of a $600 fine in May, but kept in jail for other charges of incitement to commit violence and disorderly conduct. It was his first-ever conviction.
His party, the CCC, has said Sikhala’s continued detention is evidence of “judicial capture by the regime”.
“More importantly, Job Sikhala’s continued detention is a reflection that we have many ordinary citizens languishing in our country’s jails without trial,” said CCC interim youth Wing spokesperson Stephen Chuma. “Sikhala is not a criminal but a citizen’s hero who wants a better Zimbabwe for everyone where fundamental rights are respected.”
Khanyo Farise, Amnesty International’s deputy director for East and Southern Africa urged Harare to stop “weaponising the law to target opposition figures and ordinary citizens, saying “the right to a fair trial” was a universal one.
“[His] prolonged detention while he awaits trial is a gross miscarriage of justice and an indictment of Zimbabwe’s judicial system,” Farise told Al Jazeera. “It exemplifies how authorities are abusing the courts to silence opposition leaders, human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and other critical dissenting voices.”
Still, Sikhala has remained defiant at Chikurubi, a correctional institution that houses some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, authoring strongly worded letters that reveal an unbroken spirit.
“I am the spoiler of their comfort, an irritant causing people sleepless nights, disturbing the comfort of their power,” he wrote on his birthday last month, referring to the government. “Zimbabweans and the world at large have seen for what it is. Persecution by prosecution is a tired old strategy by unpopular tyrannies.
“My mouth had become dangerous, more than a loaded gun, they say it is vicious and dangerous, it spits venom and causes havoc – I had to be silenced even if it meant assassinating me.”
His family is also worried that he may not be released soon.
“We are terrified, stressed and annoyed. We have lost hope that our father will be released anytime soon because we have witnessed other people being arrested and released on the same charges,” Sikhala Jr told Al Jazeera. “We are just waiting for God’s time for his release. It is now in God’s hands.”