Zimbabwe police combed Harare’s streets rounding up suspected opposition supporters on Friday, enforcing a clampdown on dissent after using batons and water cannon to break up a protest that authorities had declared illegal.
Police patrolled the usually bustling city center in lorries and on foot, witnesses said, firing volleys of tear gas to disperse any crowds that attempted to gather as most shops and business shut amid fears that the clashes could turn more violent. Police also directed tear gas at journalists.
Friday’s street demonstration was to have been the first in a nationwide series of protests organized by the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, which accuses President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government of state-sponsored violence, corruption, and economic mismanagement.
It was banned on Thursday by police, who said any participants would be committing a crime, but more than 100 MDC supporters defied that order before being chased by baton-wielding officers from one of the city’s main squares.
Denouncing what it labeled the actions of a fascist government, the MDC called the protest off early on Friday after armed police barred access to the party’s Harare offices and its court appeal against the ban failed.
“The constitution guarantees the right to a demonstration … yet this fascist regime has denied and proscribed this right to the people of Zimbabwe,” MDC Vice President Tendai Biti told reporters outside the court.
“…We have jumped from the frying pan into the fire after the coup of November 2017… We don’t accept the conduct of this regime, the conduct of Mr. Mnangagwa.”
In Geneva, a spokesman for the U.N. human rights commissioner urged the government to engage with citizens on legitimate economic grievances and “stop cracking down on peaceful protesters.”
The series of demonstrations has been viewed as a high-profile test of Mnangagwa’s ability to tolerate dissent in a country tainted by a long history of repression. So far this year he has failed to make good on promises of political and economic reform.
Elected after the armed forces intervened to oust Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa has said he aims to break with the brutal legacy that characterized much of his predecessor’s 37 years in power.
But the economy is mired in its worst crisis in a decade, and Mnangagwa is struggling to convince the growing ranks of the country’s poor that his government’s austerity measures and reforms can trigger a recovery.
Zimbabweans had also expected last year’s vote to usher in a new dawn of expanded political rights and an end to the country’s international pariah status, but the elections instead left the country more polarised.