GOVERNMENT’S deep-seated fears of massive Sundanese-style protests over the deteriorating political and economic emergency have been exposed after it moved yesterday to block mass demonstrations called by the opposition MDC and its allies in Harare today, the Zimbabwe Independent has established.
NYASHA CHINGONO/ BRIDGET MANANAVIRE
“There is real fear in the corridors of power that the protests could degenerate into a Sudanese-style uprising,” a security source told the Independent. “So Joc (Joint Operations Command) has recommended at the last minute that they should be banned. That’s why police came up with the prohibition order which was being challenged in the courts.”
The Independent — which started reporting on the protests story in recent months and has been following it closely — was told yesterday that President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Joc dreaded the looming uprising and did not want to risk protestors taking over the capital and other strategic cities.
Hence, police yesterday ran around claiming that violence was looming and ended up prohibiting the demonstrations. This forced the MDC to go to court to challenge the ban as unconstitutional and unlawful. Harare lawyer Alec Muchadehama is handling the case to be heard this morning.
The eleventh hour fight over the protests came amid widespread fears in Mnangagwa’s administration and Joc — which brings together army, police and intelligence chiefs — that the demonstrations could spiral out of control and trigger a Sudanese-like uprising which led to the toppling of strongman Omar Al Bashir and a confrontation between the military and the people.
After months of bruising street battles, convoys of vehicles crisscrossed the streets, horns blazing amid ecstatic celebrations. Flags flew high in the sky, as revolutionary songs reverberated and yells of joy filled the air. The mood was euphoric.
News of the successful signing of a constitutional declaration that would pave way for an interim government, which eventually would work out modalities for the return to civilian rule, had filtered into towns and the Sudanese people on the streets of Khartoum could not help but express their joy.
Sunday, August 4, would go down as a memorable day and the Forces of Freedom and Change would remain indelible in the hearts of the Sudanese people who had put in a strong fight to force the ruling Transitional Military Council to agree to some of its terms after Al Bashir was overthrown.
Sources said the Zimbabwean situation has been compounded by the fact that government is worried that the rank and file of the army, police and intelligence assigned to contain and if necessary crush the demonstrations are also adversely affected by the economic crisis which has necessitated the demonstrations.
Since the November 2017 coup that ousted long-time leader Robert Mugabe, low-ranking soldiers have been complaining about deteriorating standards of living. They feel they have not benefitted from their effort in deposing the strongman, sources said.
The lower-ranking soldiers are also complaining of poor salaries, a move that prompted Mnangagwa this week to promise better living conditions, housing and better salaries to the army in a bid to pacify them.
Salaries of Zimbabweans have been eroded more than tenfold in real terms since Mnangagwa came in.
Sources said Mnangagwa (pictured) and Joc want to nip the protests in the bud before they explode into a Sudanese-style revolt whereby soldiers ended up fraternising with protesters before hounding out Al Bashir.
Prior to the Sudanese uprising, a similar situation had occurred in Algeria in February when president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his candidacy for a fifth presidential term despite his advanced age and ill-health, torching mass street protests which resulted in the army forcing him out.
There are also fears that the protests could assume the pattern of the Arab Springs of 2011 and 2012, which have since provided a template on how similar revolts can be executed. Last night, an 11th hour court battle erupted as the MDC sought to fight the prohibition order issued by the police blocking the demonstrations. The matter is expected to be heard in court at 7am this morning.
MDC leader Nelson Chamisa early this morning posted on Twitter: “We complied with the law in notifying the police. We have taken steps legally to ensure our peaceful demo is not interfered with.”
Chamisa also issued a recorded audio message saying people must come out in their numbers for the protests, explaining that it was not about party politics, but the political and economic situation — that is governance, corruption and livelihoods — at stake. He said the way forward was resolving the root cause of the problem: toxic politics and political legitimacy issues, and then the economic crisis and reforms before free and fair elections after a transitional arrangement. However, police spokesman Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said police had decided to prohibit the protests after realising they were bound to turn violent.
“The regulating authority of Harare Central District who is also the Officer Commanding Harare Central District has issued a prohibition notice after a consultative process which ended this afternoon with the convener and the convener has been duly served to indicate that there are security implications if the planned demonstrations go ahead tomorrow. So what that entails is that anyone who is going to participate or to engage in the so-called demonstrations tomorrow will be committing an offence,” Nyathi said late last night.
“In terms of section 26(9) of the Public Order and Security Act, Chapter 11: 17, anyone who therefore participates in the demonstrations will do so in contravention of section 26 (11) of the Public Order and Security Act and the law will take its course.”
“The police will be conducting patrols, surveillance, stop and searches to ensure law and order is maintained in all areas of the country. In this regard security for all citizens is guaranteed to conduct their social and economic activities.”
The developments come as hundreds of anti-riot police details armed to the teeth with water cannons, batons and assault rifles yesterday spent the day patrolling streets in central Harare ahead of today’s mass street protests as Mnangagwa’s panicky administration plotted a crackdown on protesters, claiming the demonstrations are bound to turn violent.
Mnangagwa’s government has previously clamped down on demonstrations, resulting in killings and bloodshed. The first one occurred on August 1 last year where six people were killed and then in January when the police and army killed 17 people and injured hundreds more.
Ahead of today’s protest, the Independent witnessed three unmarked army trucks with soldiers along Seke Road entering the city centre as security forces readied for demonstration slated for Africa Unity Square.
In downtown Harare, swarms of riot police officers could be seen patrolling the streets, bellowing warnings to the public using megaphones.
“Do not take part, you will rot in jail,” the officers desperately warned.
The police’s press and public relations department also released a strongly worded statement, saying the police would be out in full force after gathering intelligence that the protests were not going to be peaceful.
Government officials have in recent weeks also been scrambling to discourage the protests. In anticipation of mass protests, government subjected more than a thousand regular police officers to paramilitary training, purchasing an assortment of weapons, including AK-47 assault rifles and sniper rifles.
Authorities moved to acquire millions of rounds of ammunition, 5 000 mortar bombs and 58 500 grenades to boost its arsenal in preparation for looming street protests as the intractable political and economic crisis worsens. As reported by the Independent in June, Mnangagwa’s government ordered 18 types of ammunition for the Zimbabwe Republic Police’s Support Unit. The ammunition was listed as “critical requirements” and was acquired amid growing fears that the country could plunge into chaos in light of the deteriorating economy.
On its part, the MDC said it was also on high alert to deal with a third force which could trigger violence. The party said its marshals would quickly weed out any agents provocateurs who might be planted to cause mayhem. MDC secretary-general Chalton Hwende dismissed reports that the protests would be violent, saying his party would deploy 5 000 easily identifiable marshals and drone technology to weed out would-be trouble causers.
“That narrative is false and it comes from people who do not want Zimbabweans to exercise their democratic right to demonstrate. We have managed to get the services of 5 000 clearly identifiable marshals to maintain order during the protests. We have also managed to get drone services to detect any elements bent on causing confusion,” Hwende said. “We are very confident that the protests will go on peacefully.”
Hwende expressed grave concern over a fresh pre-emptive strike against opposition activists. In the latest crackdown, three MDC officials were reportedly abducted in Mufakose, Chitungwiza and Epworth, according to Hwende.
“Today we have had three (three) of our officials who were abducted. These include the ward chairperson for Epworth, one leader from Mufakose and the son of our Chitungwiza deputy mayor. There is a clear pattern by the state to abduct known MDC patrons. We have been in touch with human rights defenders and we are getting help for some who are seriously injured. They want to scare people away from the protests but we have dispatched our officials to assure our supporters that the demonstrations will go on as scheduled,” he said.
“Most of our officials are not safe, we are being followed, but we are used to it. We expect this. We have advised our officials to take precaution because we hear that they are planning on arresting some tonight.”
This comes after the six activists were reportedly abducted, severely tortured and left for dead by suspected state agents between August 13 and 14.
Speaking in Harare, the spokesperson of the Heads of Coalitions of Civil Society Organisations in Zimbabwe, Jestina Mukoko, a victim of state brutality in the past, said the number of human rights violations had escalated ahead of today’s protests amid calls for Sadc, African Union and United Nations to condemn widespread attacks on activists.
“We regret that there are already indications based on circumstantial evidence that some suspected state security agents may have already started attacking human rights defenders, as well as political activists. Sadly these developments remind us of the atrocities committed earlier this year in January,” Mukoko said.
The United States embassy in Harare yesterday expressed deep concern over the abduction, assault, and torture of civil society and opposition leaders.
“The United States expresses its deep concern over the abduction, assault, and torture of civil society and opposition leaders in advance of the planned march on August 16,” the embassy’s public affairs officer Kenneth Wetzel said.
“The Government of Zimbabwe bears the responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens under its constitution. We welcome the Zimbabwean government’s commitment to investigate these crimes and to bring those responsible to justice.
“We encourage those Zimbabweans who wish to seek redress before their government to do so peacefully. The ongoing polarization in Zimbabwean society, as identified by the Motlanthe Commission and the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, underscores the urgent need for a broad-based and inclusive national dialogue. Such a dialogue, coupled with political and economic reforms, holds the promise of a more prosperous and successful Zimbabwe.”
Police said their intelligence and evidence on the ground had revealed that the peaceful demonstrations would turn violent.
“It is a fact that the police recovered a substantial quantity of granite stones and catapults stashed in sacks and were delivered by two vehicles which had no registration plates at corner Nelson Mandela and Innez Terrace, Harare during the night on 13th August 2019. The vehicles went on to drop sacks containing unknown items to one street kids at corner Robert Mugabe/Harare Street, Copacabana commuter rank and disappeared. The sacks were then taken away by unidentified street kids who suddenly disappeared into the darkness,” Nyathi said.
Demonstrations over the deteriorating economic situation will take place in Harare today, Bulawayo (August 19), Gweru (August 20), Masvingo (August 21) and Mutare (August 22).
Chamisa said today’s demonstrations were to show the world how discontented Zimbabweans are.
“Yes our democracy is emaciated and weakened. Yes this is a cause for us to then show the world that we are unhappy, that we have concerns, that we are discontent, that we have to resolve the fundamental issues that we are facing,” Chamisa said.
“This is why we have said that the march against hunger, the march against poverty, the march against suffering, is an important march. Yes our people have been patient, have been peaceful but we don’t deserve this. This is why, comrades and friends, fellow citizens, it is important that as we go into this we are looking at the nature of the crisis, it’s a crisis of governance, a crisis of legitimacy, a crisis of politics. Fix the politics then you fix the economy. If you don’t fix politics, you have problems.
“The endgame out of this is a people’s government, a legitimate people’s government, elected by the people, chosen by the people. The legitimacy issue has not been resolved and this is why we feel we should address the five fundamental issues in our country. The issue of lack of legitimacy, the issue of absent and fundamental comprehensive reforms, the issue of absence of national vision, nation building, national unity, national coercion, that must be dealt with.”