BRIDGET MANANAVIRE/NYASHA CHINGONO
ZIMBABWE’s state security forces have acquired new equipment and weapons, including water cannons, teargas canisters and guns, to prepare to combat looming street protests due to the collapsing economy, a wave of price increases and skyrocketing cost of living amid plunging incomes, the Zimbabwe Independent has established.
Besides purchasing armaments, a large number of police officers have been undergoing rigorous para-military-style training as government prepares to face riots amid rising public discontent over the rising cost of living and general economic collapse.
The security manoeuvres come as the country is engulfed in a tense and explosive mood due to worsening economic problems. People are now generally worse off since President Emmerson Mnangagwa seized power through a military coup, ousting his mentor Robert Mugabe in November 2017.
With annual inflation scaling 75,86%, prices have shot up by between 200% and 500%. Salaries and wages have been eroded seven-fold, leaving the already poor majority reeling in the depths of poverty and despair.
Fearing an uprising — as first reported by the Independent — government has placed state security forces on high alert as it anticipates social unrest over economic and social problems.
Currency and exchange rate volatility are wreaking havoc in the market and economy. The local quasi-currencies continue to lose value to hard currencies, especially the main base unit, the United States dollar.
Security sources said three batches of police officers numbering 350 had undergone gruelling paramilitary training at Shamva Battle Camp as part of the programme to capacitate the police and prepare to combat riots.
The fourth group is scheduled to start training on June 7.
“This means about 1 050 regular police officers have received the training. In the event of civil unrest, they will be deployed alongside officers from the Support Unit which specialises in crowd control. There is a plan to extend the programme to other provinces because most of the trainees have been from Harare,” a senior security official said. “The officers are receiving month-long paramilitary training, which is gruelling in nature and has a lot of emphasis on physical fitness. They are being trained in the use of baton sticks, shields and helmets as well as crowd control and crowd dispersal.
“They are also being trained to use new weaponry which has been acquired, including Mossberg shot guns, which can be used even within a range of 10 metres unlike the previous ones which could only be used at a range of 75 metres and above, for fear of causing fatalities.”
The Mossberg 500 and 590 models are the shotguns usually used in riot situations.
Officers receiving training are from the rank of constable up to chief inspector.
“Currently the training is just on how to operate the guns as the ammunition has not yet arrived. But the ammunition is less lethal as it disintegrates after being discharged from the guns, but it can cause serious injuries and is good for crowd dispersal when police officers and rioters are in close proximity,” another security official said.
Officials also told the Independent that government had acquired new tear gas canisters which become too hot to handle on hitting the ground when the safety pin is released. This means protestors will not be able to pick canisters and return fore by throwing them back at the police.
Police have also acquired new water cannons for crowd dispersal.
Apart from the Shamva Battle Camp, another programme concentrating on officers who were doing mostly office work is being done at the Police Updating Centre at Morris Depot in Harare, sources said.
The officers are being taken through their paces by personnel trained in Russia — where they underwent a train-the-trainer programme.
Security officials revealed that as part of a strategy to ensure preparedness, a reaction team is stationed at Harare Central Police Station ready for deployment.
“If you go to the back of Harare Central, you will officers and some soldiers ready for deployment. The plan though is not to deploy soldiers but the police because of the killings in January and August,” one security officer said.
It is not clear whether the equipment was acquired from part of the R55 million (US$3,7 million) pledged by South Africa in March during the Zimbabwe-South Africa Bi-National Commission in Harare.
After soldiers shot six people during election-related protests on August 1 last year and 17 people were killed during the January demonstrations, there was global outrage against Mnangagwa’s regime. Many others were tortured, injured, and abducted or raped, triggering international condemnation.
Government then came under heavy pressure to retrain the police and stop deploying the military to deal with civic unrest and protests.
Sources say the government, still rattled by the January protests and concerned by the international condemnation in the aftermath of the deployment of the military in January and on August 1 2018, had resolved to equip and capacitate the police to deal with demonstrations.
The move is meant to ensure government attracts less international scrutiny given the condemnation received after the previous deployment of the military. This is also in line with recommendations of the Kgalema Motlanthe commission of inquiry which was established after the August 2018 killings.
The Motlanthe commission recommended that the use of the military to assist police in maintaining public order “should only be resorted to as a last measure in extraordinary situations”.
“The commission recommends in the interests of national cohesion and the protection of all citizens, that the Police should be further trained to be professional and non-partisan. The use of live ammunition as warning shots should be discouraged and should only be used in limited circumstances of danger to public safety,” it said.
South Africa pledged the money as part of efforts to assist Zimbabwe to retrain the police and acquire protective gear to avoid military deployment.
Speaking at a hand-over ceremony of a humanitarian package, a day after the bi-national commission, South Africa’s then International Relations and Co-operation minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, who was this week appointed Human Settlement, Water and Sanitation minister, said the R55 million was meant to assist Zimbabwe in training local police.
“The package that comes from myself is to assist through you minister in the training of the police and in making sure that they have the necessary protective gear to make sure they are equipped. We have realised they are very busy,” she said. “We therefore decided to donate this for the time being. We are hoping this would be on an ongoing basis. The necessary resources for their training and the necessary resources for the equipment that they will need for their training whatever else that goes with it.”
Home Affairs minister Cain Mathema this week reacted angrily when asked about the police training programmes and the equipment purchases.
“Why are you asking me? I don’t know what you are talking about. Go and ask the person who told you. I don’t know about anything you are asking me, including that money,” Mathema said. “Why are you putting me in a corner? I am telling you I do not know anything about it. Am I the one who told you that?”
The main opposition MDC this week threatened to unleash protests as part of efforts to force the government to address the deteriorating socio-economic conditions. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union has also threatened demonstrations.
Government officials told the Independent that they were worried that there was a lack of cohesion and trust among the security forces, which could hamper a reaction to protests.
As reported by the Independent, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches recently warned the security chiefs to call for an urgent all-stakeholder dialogue to deliberate on the economic crisis if an uprising is to be averted.
The church warned that the deteriorating economy had become a security threat.
Security forces have instead intensified a crackdown on civil society with the arrest of four activists at Robert Mugabe International Airport last week on allegations of subversion as official paranoia over growing social unrest reaches tipping point.
Mathema recently warned government is ready to deal with protesters. The MDC and civic groups say they will not be intimidated.