Security Forces Gear Up for Mass Protests

As the situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate, civil society groups are planning to make their voices heard.

By Chipo Sithole in Harare
Tanks moved into Harare's townships this week and security forces were put on high alert in preparation for the start of a national strike and pro

ZTV, a mouthpiece of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, said "security agents have been put on high alert" and all police leave cancelled.

The government, alleging that the opposition is planning a coup to oust Mugabe through banditry, terrorism, demonstrations and strikes, has warned that plans by labour unions to shut down power and telecommunications will cause chaos.

The National Constitutional Assembly, NCA, a militant civil society pressure group, has announced that it will hold street protests demanding the installation of a transitional authority to spearhead constitutional reform leading to free and fair presidential elections.

All last week, the opposition press carried advertisements announcing the protest action, expected to start next week, and stencilled signs have appeared on Harare’s walls and kerbs. "Zvakwana (Enough)!" they read.

On January 12, army trucks rolled into Chitungwiza, about 25 kilometres north of Harare and a stronghold of opposition to Mugabe, and soldiers patrolled the streets of volatile suburbs in the capital as Zimbabweans braced for street protests planned by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU, which is demanding that salaries be paid in foreign currency.

With the increasing dollarisation of the Zimbabwean economy, the Zimbabwe dollar, which is used to pay government workers, is virtually unacceptable as legal tender.

"Why should workers accept payment in Zim dollars when the government itself has said it has lost confidence in the local currency and charges for every service in forex," asked ZCTU secretary general Wellington Chibebe. "There will be no option but mass action until our demands are met. That's the only language that the regime understands."

Military police in combat uniform manned roadblocks on main roads into Harare while mounted patrols moved into the tree-lined avenues surrounding the president's official residence.

Police and paramilitary reinforcements have been deployed to a central city park, the Africa Unity Square, where protests in the city centre usually start, and heightened day and night patrols are in place to try to pre-empt the planned protests in the capital, which is a hotbed of support for the opposition.

No traffic is allowed around the square and streets in the vicinity have been blocked off with concertina wire coils, while there is a massive and unprecedented deployment of police and paramilitary in areas close to the square.

Tensions are running dangerously high as anti-riot police rough up innocent citizens and carry out strip and search operations, allegedly looking for concealed weapons, which they claim the opposition and its allies are planning to use to foment unrest and destabilise the country.

Although organisers are trying to keep routes and details of protest marches secret until the last minute, there is talk of a march on Munhumutapa Building in central Harare, which houses Mugabe’s offices, with a demand that he make a national statement of surrender.

After four months of fruitless attempts to implement a power-sharing deal between Mugabe and the two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, exasperated civil society groups have, albeit reluctantly, now resolved to take the country on a more volatile route.

"We cannot allow Mugabe to destroy the country while we watch," said Maddock Chivasa, spokesman for the NCA, calling on Zimbabweans to protest regularly and consistently [every week] until a resolution to the political crisis engulfing our country is found and implemented.

"Democracy will not come tomorrow, and perhaps any time soon, but it certainly will never come until and unless we fight for it. The NCA will keep organising and mobilising until our country is governed in accordance with the will of the people."

The NCA's push for a transitional authority comes amid increasing fears that the power-sharing deal signed in September by Mugabe, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and the head of a breakaway faction of the MDC, Arthur Mutambara, may collapse because of the failure by the three signatories to agree on the allocation of the most powerful ministries, especially the home affairs portfolio, which oversees the police.

The government has warned marchers that their action, which it terms a British-sponsored plan to subvert a democratically elected government, is tantamount to a coup, which will be put down ruthlessly.

Since December 24, at least 17 MDC officials and human rights activists have been charged with offences ranging from terrorism to recruiting insurgents for military training. They are part of a group of an estimated 42 people the MDC says have been kidnapped by state agents as Mugabe cracks down on dissent.

A police spokesman, appearing to relish the prospect of a confrontation, said any protests will be ”met with the full wrath of the law”.

"All our departments are on high alert as there are elements within the Movement for Democratic Change who are bent on destabilising the country. We will come down very heavily on anyone found carrying weapons," he said.

MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa has rubbished the allegations, saying the party has no motivation to be involved in the planned civil society protests.

"The fact that they've suddenly increased their presence in a show of might means they believe their own absurd propaganda about bandits," said Chamisa. "There are no bandits. Why would the MDC, which controls parliament and thus government, want to destabilise itself?"

Mugabe, 84, has been under pressure to retire so new presidential elections can be held, but there is little hope that he will do so, despite the fact that his nation is facing its worst economic crisis since independence in 1980.

”Any thought of the dictator giving up power quietly is sheer delusion," said Chivasa.

Mugabe returned to Harare on January 11, after cutting short his holiday in the Far East, to face the gathering storm.

He returned to a city beset by severe shortages of many foods and struggling with constant interruptions to the supply of electricity and water. From the tinted windows of his bullet-proof Mercedes, he would have seen the feral children sniffing glue and begging on street corners; the drivers camping out in fuel queues that extend for miles outside empty petrol stations.

Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained journalist in Zimbabwe.

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