By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) – A crackdown last week on protests in Zimbabwe is a foretaste of how the government will respond to future unrest, the president’s spokesman said, fuelling concerns that the southern African country is reverting to authoritarian rule.
Police say three people died during the demonstrations in Harare’s capital and second city Bulawayo that turned violent. But human rights groups say evidence suggests at least a dozen people were killed while scores were treated for gunshot wounds and hundreds were detained.
“(The) government will not stand by while such narrow interests play out so violently. The response so far is just a foretaste of things to come,” President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s spokesman George Charamba told the state-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper.
Charamba said authorities would review some provisions of the constitution adopted in 2013, which he said were being abused by proponents of democracy.
He was accompanying Mnangagwa on a four-nation European tour. The president had been expected to fly on to the World Economic Forum in Davos this week and pitch for foreign investment to revive Zimbabwe’s crippled economy.
Mnangagwa will no longer attend the event, the WEF’s head of media said on Sunday.
Government officials were not immediately available to comment.
Lawyers and activists say hundreds of Zimbabweans are in custody accused of public order offences, including at least four lawmakers from the opposition MDC party and Evan Mawarire, a pastor who rose to prominence as a critic of former leader Robert Mugabe and led a national shutdown in 2016.
Local rights groups say security forces, accused of night raids at beating suspected protesters in their homes, were on Sunday trying to track down people who have gone into hiding.
A partial internet blackout was still in force on Sunday, two days after mobile networks sent messages to customers saying they had been ordered to keep social media sites shut until further notice.
Before winning a contested election in July, Mnangagwa promised a clean break with the 37-year rule of Mugabe, who used the security forces to quell civilian protests before being forced out in a de facto coup in November 2017.
But the MDC says former Mugabe ally Mnangagwa, whose nickname is ‘Crocodile’, is now overseeing a reversion to authoritarian rule by using the same tactic.
Charamba said the MDC leadership and affiliate organisations would be “held fully accountable for the violence and the looting.” The MDC denies fomenting unrest.
U.N. rights officials denounced last week’s crackdown, while an independent inquiry found that the army used excessive force when it stepped in to stop post-election violence last August, during which six people were shot dead.
Zimbabweans, who have seen their purchasing power eroded by soaring inflation, also say Mnangagwa has not delivered on pre-election pledges to kick-start economic growth after Mugabe’s exit.
(Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi in Milan; writing and editing by John Stonestreet)