HARARE (Reuters) – Troops ordered shops to close and told people to leave the center of Zimbabwe’s capital on Thursday, one day after three people were killed by soldiers sent in to break up demonstrators claiming this week’s presidential election was rigged.
The crackdown by the army has punctured the euphoria that followed its removal of long-time strongman Robert Mugabe eight months ago, and fueled suspicions that the generals who launched the coup remain Zimbabwe’s de facto rulers.
In Harare, the contrast could not be stronger with November, when hundreds of thousands filled the streets, hugging soldiers and celebrating their role in ousting 94-year-old Mugabe, the only leader Zimbabwe had known since independence in 1980.
“They are showing their true colors now. We thought they were our savior in November but they fooled us,” said newspaper vendor Farai Dzengera, admitting that the brief dream of an end to decades of repression was over.
“Now they tell us to leave town. What can we do? We will go. They run this country.”
Nearly all shops in downtown Harare were shuttered and the normally bustling pavements eerily quiet. Several streets remained littered with the rubble and embers from Wednesday’s clashes between protesters and soldiers.
“We are just waiting to see what they will do next since they don’t want us in town. Who can argue with a man carrying a gun?” said Isaac Nyirenda, sipping a sorghum beer out of a sipping a blue plastic bottle.
ARMY IN CHARGE
Wednesday’s violence, which followed a relatively orderly election, dashes President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s hopes of repairing the image of a country that had become synonymous with corruption and economic collapse in under Mugabe.
In particular, the use of soldiers to control the capital confirms suspicions that the generals who ousted Mugabe – including army chief-turned vice-president Constantino Chiwenga – are firmly in charge, analysts said.
“Deployment of troops reveals the uncomfortable truth that, eight months after Mugabe was ousted, the army remains the pre-eminent political force,” said Piers Pigou, a Zimbabwe expert at the International Crisis Group think-tank.
The election, which pitched 75-year-old Mnangagwa against 40-year-old opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, was supposed to confirm the legitimacy of the post-Mugabe government and allow Harare to renew ties with the international community.
This in turn would have allowed it to start unlocking the billions of dollars of donor funding and investment needed to get its economy – at independence, one of Africa’s most vibrant – back on its feet.
Instead, observers from the Commonwealth, the group of mainly former British colonies that Mnangagwa had been hoping to rejoin, did not mince their words in condemning the conduct of the military.
“We categorically denounce the excessive use of force against unarmed civilians,” former Ghanaian president John Mahama said in a statement on behalf of the Commonwealth.
He also urged the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to speed up the announcement of the results of the presidential vote. The observers had on Wednesday reported a number of problems with the poll, including voter intimidation.
The United Nations and European Union both called for restraint, while Britain, an unashamed cheerleader of the “new” post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, said it was “deeply concerned” by the violence.
China, an important source of funding under Mugabe and Mnangagwa, said however it believed the election had generally proceeded in an orderly fashion. A foreign ministry spokesman “noted” reports of Wednesday’s unrest.
Mnangagwa, a former security chief nicknamed ‘The Crocodile’, offered his condolences to the families of the victims of the crackdown and said those responsible would be brought to justice.
He also said he had been talking to Chamisa to try to defuse tensions, which escalated dramatically after the Movement for Democratic Change leader claimed – without producing evidence or numbers – that he had won the popular vote.
There was no response from the MDC, whose founder, Morgan Tsvangirai, beat Mugabe in the first round of an election in 2008 before pulling out of the race after scores of his supporters were killed.
Tsvangirai, who was savagely beaten in police custody in 2007, died of cancer in February.
The election commission, whose website was hacked overnight, said it would announce the results of the vote “very soon” and denied MDC claims that it had allowed ZANU-PF to rig the vote.
There was “absolutely no skulduggery”, deputy chairman Emmanuel Magade told a news conference.
For some, however, the result no longer matters.
“Yesterday was a very sad day for Zimbabwe,” said minibus driver Gift, glancing over his shoulder at a soldier smoking a cigarette.
“We hope things remain quiet and we can all just forget about this election. We don’t know if it was fair. The government will do what they want.”
Additional reporting and writing by Ed Cropley, Editing by Angus MacSwan