HARARE resembled a war zone yesterday as violence flared up after riot police violently disrupted an opposition political parties-organised electoral reform demonstration in defiance of a High Court order which reversed the 11th-hour ban of the march.
by Everson Mushava/Obey Manayiti
The National Electoral Reform Agenda (Nera) accused police of inciting the violence, vowing another demonstration of an even higher magnitude would be held next Friday.
The 18 political parties including MDC-T, Zimbabwe People First (ZimPF), MDC, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Renewal Democrats of Zimbabwe, Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn, Transform Zimbabwe, Freedom Front, Zanu Ndonga, ADP, PDZ, Dare, ZimFirst, Zunde and FreeZim Congress, were set to march through the streets of the capital to push for electoral reforms, but were violently stopped by the police.
There was a heavy police presence by 9am with multiple roadblocks on major roads leading into the central business district (CBD). Determined to push their position, the protesters started gathering in the capital city early in the morning as they waited for the High Court outcome.
When news started filtering through that the court had granted the order in their favour, the demonstrators trooped to Civic Centre grounds (Freedom Square), but were met by police heavy-handedness.
Things went to a head when the police used brute force to disperse the crowd by indiscriminately firing tear smoke and water cannons. Police continually fired teargas and water cannons, affecting proceedings at the Rotten Row Magistrates’ Court. But this did not cow the demonstrators into submission as they continued to build up resistance against police brutality.
Running battles continued with the anti-government demonstrators barricading Rotten Row using boulders, vehicle shells and burnt tyres to block traffic from passing through.
Initially, the protesters fled, but regrouped and fought back, virtually closing down the upper parts of the capital. The protesters later retreated into the CBD, blocking roads, looting shops, smashing vehicles as they continued to engage in running battles with the police.
To show their dislike of President Robert Mugabe, the protesters pulled down Robert Mugabe Road signposts, placing one of them alongside a dead puppy while mocking the 92-year-old Zanu PF leader. They barricaded the road and continued their running battles with the police.
The worst violence was witnessed along Chinhoyi Street when Zanu PF youths manning vending stalls at Copacabana bus terminus threatened the demonstrators who had ordered them to close their businesses.
Skirmishes erupted with youths exchanging fire using sling shots and throwing stones at each other, while others engaged in physical contact. Zanu PF youths eventually retreated, but the worst was still to come. The protesters set ablaze the vending stalls, destroying some bales of clothing.
Riot police were all this time making sporadic appearances, using water cannons to disperse people who formed pockets around road intersections and along city roads, with business coming to a standstill in Jason Moyo Avenue.
As the drama continued to unfold in the CBD, opposition political leaders who included ZimPF’s Joice Mujuru, MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Transform Zimbabwe leader Jacob Ngarivhume, PDP leader Tendai Biti and former Presidential Affairs minister Didymus Mutasa, left the Civic Grounds in a huff after their convoy was tear-gassed when they attempted to address their followers after being granted the court order to proceed with the protest.
Mutasa, who is Nera convenor, told journalists that he was shocked by the level of violence by the police against the people.
“Today has been the worst day that I have lived in the country that I have observed with my own eyes, the State breaking its own laws and the State starting violence by attacking people who had gathered together throwing teargas and hitting them with water cannons,” Mutasa said.
“If that was intended to cow us from demonstrating, I want to say the opposite has been the case, we are going next Friday to do exactly the same as we have done today. We are going to request another opportunity to demonstrate here in Harare, and if that is thwarted, then our demonstration capacity will also be extended.”
Mutasa was flanked by Tsvangirai and his deputies Elias Mudzuri and Nelson Chamisa, Mujuru, Ngarivhume, ZimPF’s Rugare Gumbo and many more from the opposition camp.
He said people were tired of Mugabe’s rule and hoped that fresh elections would be held sooner than 2018.
“And this mess, it’s a real mess, will end. The protests will continue until we vote Mugabe out of power,” Mutasa said, adding they would push their concerns through Sadc and the African Union.
Tsvangirai said they would simply notify the police of next week’s protest because it had already been approved.
Asked if the police would not use today’s violence to deny Nera the chance to protest, Tsvangirai said political parties should not be held responsible for anything that happened outside their planned protest route.
“We had a route, anything that happened outside the route, we are not accountable,” he said, concurring with Mutasa that the police triggered the violence. He said Mugabe could only ignore people’s anger at his own peril.
Mujuru said she had received news that over 50 protesters who had been battered by the police had been sent to the Counselling Services Unit.
“This thing has been there for a long time and when people are bottling this (anger) for too long, you know what will happen, and these are the results. People have been whispering their anger and no one has been giving them an ear to that, and, therefore, we are going to live with it if we are not going to get a response sooner.”
By last night popcorn protests were still being experience in different parts of the capital.
Meanwhile, National Vendors’ Union of Zimbabwe chairperson Stern Zvorwadza was yesterday arrested on allegations of inciting public violence.
Zvorwadza was arrested at Harare Central Police Station where he had gone to report as part of his bail conditions. Tajakumuka/Sesijikile spokesperson Promise Mkwananzi was also reportedly arrested earlier on the same allegations.
The two were currently detained at the CID Law and Order Section.
According to unconfirmed reports, Zvorwadza was apprehended soon after arriving at the police station by plain-clothed police officers who told him that they wanted to question him with disturbances currently unfolding in the country.