HARARE: 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 army crackdown 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.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s main spokesman, George Charamba, dismissed the reports as “fake news which is meant to destabilize our country”.
“My message today to all Zimbabweans is that today is a normal working day. They must go about their business as always,” he said on state television.
Wednesday’s violence, which followed a relatively orderly election, dashes Mnangagwa’s hopes of repairing the image of a country that had become synonymous with corruption and economic collapse 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.