HARARE, Zimbabwe — Amid a crackdown on dissent and an implosion of public services such as water and electricity, Zimbabwe’s opposition planned to bring the country’s capital to a standstill in a mass protest.
But a last-minute ban on the rally by police stopped many from coming out, and some of those who defied the ban were severely beaten with batons during a heavy-handed dispersal Friday morning.
The planned protests by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change appear to have shaken the ruling party and President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power from longtime authoritarian ruler Robert Mugabe in a military-backed intervention more than a year and a half ago.
After a decade of rampant corruption and ruinous policy from Mugabe sparked runaway inflation and international sanctions, Mnangagwa promised a “new Zimbabwe” that would enact economic reforms and attract long-awaited foreign investment.
But inflation has again risen to 175 percent, lopping off chunks of people’s wages and savings. Prices of basic goods from bread to fuel to medicines have skyrocketed.
Rolling blackouts have left many Zimbabweans, even in the capital, with power for less than 10 hours a day, and it is often only available during the overnight hours. Millions have lost their running water and must stand in long lines to draw water from municipal wells.
And human rights groups say that six activists and opposition leaders were abducted in the middle of the night, stripped, beaten and tortured in the lead-up to Friday’s demonstrations.
“The legal avenues for people to express their grievances have been almost completely shut off now in the country,” said Doug Coltart, a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer.
Police Chief Paul Nyathi had gone on television Thursday night and announced that the rally was illegal, claiming that a “cache of weapons” including catapults and stones had been found in Harare. The protest ban was upheld in court Friday.
The police stopped and checked cars entering the city and used loudspeakers to warn residents that if they participated in the rally, they would “rot in jail.”
Some protesters defied the ban, but remained peaceful.
One protester, Gertrude Moyo, 34, recounted how police had hit an older woman several times on the head. She then fell to the ground, apparently unconscious.
“I jumped over her as I ran away,” she said. “Is this democracy? When we demonstrate that things are bad, we are beaten? If they kill us, who will they rule? We are doomed with this government of Mnangagwa.”
“Rhodesia is back! Rogue regimes always collapse,” said opposition leader Nelson Chamisa in a missive to his social media followers, referring to the southern African country’s colonial-era name.
Why are protesters angry?
Mnangagwa assumed power in late 2017 with great hopes on his shoulders. Robert Mugabe had ruled for 37 years, and as time passed, he had become more authoritarian, and his party, once associated with Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, became synonymous with corruption and brute force.
While Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s enforcer and former spy chief, many believed his promises of economic reform. In the months leading up to Zimbabwe’s first post-Mugabe election in July 2018, it appeared that the rights to freedom of speech and assembly were more widely ensured than under Mugabe.
Although the election itself was peaceful, it was marred by accusations of vote-rigging. During the vote-counting process, the MDC staged sit-ins in downtown Harare, and groups rioted and vandalized parts of the city. The army was sent in, and six people were fatally shot. The government has not prosecuted any officers for their role in the killings.
By the time fuel prices were hiked in January, much of the hope in Mnangagwa’s government had faded. MDC supporters and others again took to the streets and were met with violence. Hundreds were raped or beaten by security forces, and 13 were killed. Rights groups say a similar crackdown took place against opposition activists over the past week.
The U.S. Embassy in Harare released a statement noting the past week’s attacks and expressing “deep concern” over the “ongoing polarization” in Zimbabwe under Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa has urged the opposition to engage in dialogue.
“Our strongest asset is our unity. I reiterate my calls to all opposition leaders that my door remains open [and] my arms remain outstretched. Riots [and] destructive violence must be rejected; peaceful constructive dialogue are the way forward,” he said in a statement Thursday.
How bad is the economy?
As the government struggles to attract foreign investment, its access to foreign exchange has dwindled, and the prices of goods, most of which are imported, have ballooned. For the first time in Zimbabwe’s history, food aid is being distributed in cities.
The lack of foreign exchange has also impeded the government’s ability to back up its own currency, causing inflation and a devaluation of the money that almost all Zimbabweans rely on for their wages and savings.
Doctors have given a three-week ultimatum to the government to increase their salaries in the face of inflation, or they will strike, they say.
In March, the United States renewed its sanctions on the ZANU-PF ruling party, top military figures and some government-owned firms, which were imposed for alleged human rights violations and “undermining of the democratic process” under Mugabe. Earlier this month, the U.S. government added the former head of the presidential guard to the sanctions list for his alleged role in last year’s post-election killings.
Zimbabwe’s finance minister has responded to the growing inflation by blacking out statistics on price increases for the next six months. The International Monetary Fund says the country’s economy will contract for the first time since 2008, when inflation spiraled out of control, and the central bank printed now-infamous trillion-dollar notes.
Bearak reported from Nairobi.