By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader said his party backed down from a planned anti-government protest on Friday to avoid bloodshed and signalled the MDC would change tactics in confronting what it called a “fascist” government.
Police combed Harare’s streets rounding up suspected Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters, after using batons and water cannon to break up a protest that authorities had declared illegal.
Nelson Chamisa, the MDC leader who disputes President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s election win last year and accuses him of being as repressive as predecessor Robert Mugabe, said his party had followed the law but authorities responded in bad faith.
“Today we didn’t want to risk people’s lives by continuing to be confrontational because if we had chosen to be confrontational there will be blood in the streets,” Chamisa told reporters in Harare.
“We will continue to mobilise but what you are going to see is a mutation of our strategy because when you are facing a confrontational regime you must also use tactics that are going to be above them,” he said, without elaborating.
Friday’s street demonstration was to have been the first in a nationwide series of MDC-organised protests.
The party accuses Mnangagwa’s government of state-sponsored violence, corruption and economic mismanagement.
It was banned on Thursday by police, but more than 100 MDC supporters defied that before being chased by baton-wielding officers from a city square.
Police patrolled the usually bustling city centre in lorries and on foot, witnesses said, firing tear gas to disperse any groups that attempted to gather as most shops and business shut.
Police also directed tear gas at journalists.
Chamisa said more than 80 people had been arrested.
A police spokesman said he would give an update later.
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 demonstration … yet this fascist regime has denied and proscribed this right,” MDC vice president Tendai Biti said outside the court.
“We have jumped from the frying pan into the fire after the (anti-Mugabe) 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 demonstrations are viewed as a 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 Mugabe, Mnangagwa has said he aims to break with the brutal legacy that characterised 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 poor that austerity measures and reforms can trigger a recovery.
Zimbabweans had also expected last year’s vote to usher in a new dawn of expanded rights and an end to the country’s international pariah status, but the elections instead left society more polarised.
In January, a crackdown in Harare against fuel demonstrations left more than a dozen people dead.
Before Friday’s planned demonstration, six political activists were abducted from their homes at night and beaten by armed men, rights groups said.
In another echo of the Mugabe era, the apparatus of state was out in full force on Friday. Witnesses saw police and armed soldiers searching buses, taxis and private vehicles at checkpoints and randomly asking for identity documents.
One woman was taken to hospital with a deep gash on her head after police charged at MDC supporters.
Anger is mounting over triple-digit inflation, rolling power cuts and shortages of U.S. dollars, fuel and bread – bringing back memories of the hyperinflation of a decade ago that forced Zimbabwe to ditch its currency.
“We are tired, enough is enough,” MDC member Patience Gurure said moments before police dispersed her group.
In a letter to church leaders published on Friday in the state-owned Herald newspaper, Mnangagwa said the economic hardship had its roots in sanctions imposed by the West more than a decade ago as well as a drought this year.
He also said Chamisa rejected his invitation to talks. The MDC leader has said he will only sit down if there is a neutral arbiter.
“The doors of national dialogue are still open to all political leaders,” Mnangagwa said.
(Additional reporting by Tonderai Gonorenda and Philemon Bulawayo and by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe and John Stonestreet; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)