Three people have been killed in Harare as soldiers and police fought running battles with hundreds of protesters, firing live ammunition, teargas and water cannon amid rising tension following Zimbabwe’s presidential election.
The army was deployed in the capital on Wednesday after police proved unable to quell demonstrators who claim Monday’s historic election is being rigged.
In a late-night press conference, Home Affairs Minister Obert Mpofu warned that the government “will not tolerate any of the actions that were witnessed today.”
“The opposition… have perhaps interpreted our understanding to be weak, and I think they are testing our resolve and I think they are making a big mistake,” he said.
By mid-afternoon much of the city centre resembled a war zone, with military helicopters flying overhead, armoured personnel carriers moving through burning debris and patrols of soldiers chasing stone throwers down narrow streets. A pall of smoke filled the sky. On cracked pavements there was glass and – in some places – blood.
Terrified commuters took cover in shop doorways or behind walls still covered in posters bearing portraits of election candidates as volleys of shots rang out and stones flew through the air. Witnesses reported seeing soldiers beating people with makeshift batons.
United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres called on Zimbabwe’s political leaders and people to exercise restraint and reject any form of violence. He was joined by UK foreign office minister Harriett Baldwin, who said she was “deeply concerned” by the violence and called on the nation’s political leaders to “take responsibility for ensuring calm and restraint at this critical moment.”
Opposition supporters have expressed growing impatience over delays in releasing the results of the historic vote, the first since Robert Mugabe was ousted after four decades in charge.
The scenes of violence contrasted dramatically with the jubilation and joy on the same streets that greeted the end of Mugabe’s rule in November. Then soldiers were seen as patriotic heroes. On Wednesday afternoon, in the opposition stronghold of Harare at least, they were seen once more as thuggish defenders of the ruling Zanu-PF party.
Early clashes took place outside the headquarters of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which opposition supporters accuse of bias, and spread rapidly.
“We support [opposition leader Nelson] Chamisa and we want him to be our president. The electoral commission is not fair. Our election is being stolen,” said a 19-year-old student among the protesters.
Some chanted: “This is war,” while others shouted slogans calling for the country’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, to step down.
“This is all the government’s fault,” Abigail Nganlo, a 29-year-old nurse, told the Guardian as she sheltered from the clashes in a narrow alley. “We are on our knees with the economic situation. People are so angry. The [election] figures they are producing are fake. Where there are 500 people at a polling station, they are saying 5,000.”
Alex Kamasa, 30, an unemployed graduate, said: “They are desperate. It is a big robbery. At least Mugabe rigged with brains. These guys rig like school children. They insult us.”
Chamisa, 40, said the presidential results were fraudulent.
“We have won this one together. No amount of results manipulation will alter your will,” he tweeted before the army was deployed.
Priscilla Chigumba, chairwoman of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and a high court judge, has denied allegations of bias and strongly disputed accusations of rigging.
The country’s justice minister, Ziyambi Ziyambi, said the army had been deployed to disperse a violent crowd and restore “peace and tranquility.”
“The presence of the army is not to intimidate people but to ensure that law and order is maintained. They are there to assist the police,” Ziyambi said in an interview broadcast on eNCA television. “They are there as a people’s army to ensure that peace and security prevails.”
The authorities are under increasing pressure to release the results of Monday’s poll, which pitted Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer, pastor and leader of the main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change, against Mnangagwa, 75, a longtime Mugabe aide and head of the Zanu-PF.
Zimbabwe’s rulers know that the widespread perception overseas that they have rigged an election would block the country’s reintegration into the international community and deny it the huge bailout package needed to avoid economic meltdown.
So too could scenes such as those seen in Harare on Wednesday afternoon. Images of soldiers firing on civilian protesters recall the darkest days of Mugabe’s rule and are a serious setback to Zanu-PF’s effort to improve its image overseas.
The US embassy said it was “deeply concerned by events unfolding in Harare”, called on leaders of all parties to call for calm and urged the military “to use restraint in dispersing” protesters.
Less than an hour before the violence, election monitors called for votes to be counted in an open and timely way.
Zanu-PF has already won a massive majority in parliament after sweeping rural constituencies by significant margins, official results show, but the parliamentary outcome does not necessarily indicate voters’ choice of head of state.
Under electoral law the result in the presidential vote has to be announced by 4 August.
Elmar Brok, the head of the first EU monitors to be allowed into Zimbabwe for 16 years, praised an “opening up of political space” before the poll but said the government had failed to ensure a level playing field and accused the ZEC of bias.
Brok called on the ZEC to make detailed results public to ensure the credibility of the election given earlier shortcomings. Other monitors also expressed concerns as the count went into a third day.
“Election day is only a snapshot of a long electoral process,” said the US congresswoman Karen Bass, one of the monitors deployed jointly by the US International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute.
“It is vital to see the electoral process to its conclusion, and it is still too early to make an assessment on the nature of these elections.”
If no candidate wins more than half of the votes in the presidential election, there will be a runoff in five weeks. Negotiations to form a coalition government are another possibility.
The two presidential candidates represent dramatically different ideologies and political styles, as well as generations. Pre-election opinion polls gave Mnangagwa, a dour former spy chief known as “the Crocodile” due to his reputation for ruthless cunning, a slim lead over Chamisa, a brilliant if sometimes wayward orator.