Zimbabwe’s Capital on Edge as Account of Violent Protests Unfolds

(Bloomberg) -- Zimbabwe’s capital remained on edge Thursday, a day after six people died during violent protests over election results, with most shops and banks in the center of Harare shutting their doors as the streets teemed with police and soldiers.

The violence tarnished what had been a largely peaceful campaign and ballot and dented the incoming administration’s chances of reuniting the southern African nation and rebuilding its economy after the last two decades of divisive rule under Robert Mugabe. With the ruling party winning almost 70 percent of the legislative vote and results from the presidential contest yet to be announced, the main opposition alliance has cried foul, saying its own unofficial tallies from polling stations showed it had won.

Zimbabwe’s Capital on Edge as Account of Violent Protests Unfolds

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, in office since the ruling party forced Mugabe to step down in November, moved swiftly to restore calm and called for an independent investigation into the violence. He said he’d held talks with Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, on ways to defuse the tension, offered condolences to the victims’ families and described the deaths as a tragedy.

Search Warrants

“We believe in transparency and accountability, and those responsible should be identified and brought to justice,” Mnangagwa said on Twitter. “The most important thing for us now is to move beyond yesterday’s tragic events and to move forward together.”

The police didn’t take a similarly conciliatory approach -- they sealed off the opposition’s headquarters in Harare after obtaining a search warrant to look for grenades, firearms, ammunition, computers and stones, and arrested 18 people. They also secured warrants to search Chamisa’s residence and those of several other opposition leaders.

Chamisa told reporters during a visit to people receiving treatment at Harare’s Parirenyatwa hospital for injuries sustained in Wednesday’s violence that he didn’t know why the police were looking for him.

Opposition Claim

“We know the results of presidential votes and we are ahead,” Chamisa said. “We condemn the use of the army on civilians. Yesterday’s incident was just one of many. Our people have been at the receiving end for the last 18 years.”

Chamisa also alleged that the electoral commission’s computer systems were open to manipulation and that more people had cast ballots in some areas than appeared on the voters’ roll.

The story of how Wednesday’s violence unfolded was related by four people familiar with the events, who spoke on condition of anonymity. They described how protests began peacefully, with the riot police who’d been patrolling Harare’s city center and securing access to the electoral commission’s office acting with restraint and even joking and waving at members of the crowd.

Then the protesters mobbed the entrance to the commission’s office, and the police, fearing that the building would be overrun, panicked and called for help from the Presidential Guard, a small military unit that has a permanent base close to police headquarters, they said.

Weapons Fire

Soldiers were sent to confront the demonstrators, and several of them may have discharged their weapons into the air as a crowd-control measure, the people said. While the military’s own investigation is far from complete, several of its officers and ruling-party officials suspect a single soldier may have been responsible for the fatal shootings, they said.

Video footage shown to Bloomberg by one of the people showed troops running toward a fleeing crowd of protesters, and a soldier shooting at them before being whipped by a superior and made to stop.

While police initially put the death toll at three, spokeswoman Charity Charamba told reporters in Harare late Thursday that it had risen to six, without saying how they died. Twenty-six people were arrested, she said.

Government spokesman George Charamba told state television that General Phillip Valerio Sibanda, the commander of the armed forces, told him no order had been given to open fire on the crowd, and it would have been inappropriate to issue such an order.

“My message today to all Zimbabweans is that today is a normal working day,” Charamba said. “They must go about their business fully aware that government has put in place measures that will ensure that the disturbances and the hooliganism that we saw yesterday can never be allowed to recur.”

Deep-Seated Anger

Two senior MDC officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday’s protests hadn’t been planned, though the party did intend to stage peaceful demonstrations when the final presidential results were announced.

While the party has held peaceful protests in the past, the officials cited the difficulty of controlling Harare’s large population of educated but unemployed young men, who harbor deep-seated anger toward a government they feel has let them down.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission condemned the violence Thursday and called for patience as it finalizes the presidential election outcome, commissioner Qhubani Moyo told reporters in Harare. The results will be released from 10 p.m., he said.

Election Front-Runners

Mnangagwa, a 75-year-old former spy chief and deputy president, and Chamisa, 40, a lawyer and church pastor, are the front-runners in the presidential race, which featured 22 contenders.

An observer mission from the Commonwealth, an association of mainly former British colonies, blamed the opposition for the violence, while condemning the excessive use of force by the military.

“We urge the ZEC to expedite the announcement of all election results without further delay,” former Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama, who led the mission, told reporters in Harare. “Political leaders should be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. This watershed moment for Zimbabwe should not be squandered.”

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