Zimbabwe police deployed in force to block a street protest for the third time in five days, with the main opposition party seeing hopes vanishing that government might become more tolerant of dissent than the regime it replaced.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa was elected a year ago on a pro-reform ticket, promising a break with the political repression characterising Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule and an economic upturn.
The economy is mired in its worst crisis in a decade and security forces use strong-arm tactics to snuff out three attempts by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to hold street demonstrations since Friday.
“There is a determined effort by the regime to ensure there is no more democratic space,” MDC national spokesman Daniel Molokele said.
“They are deploying a lot of military and police in the streets. It clearly shows the new government is worse than that of Robert Mugabe.”
Tuesday’s heavy security deployment in the central city of Gweru, where police – who had banned the march – patrolled on foot and in trucks and cordoned off a university, a local journalist told Reuters.
The MDC would challenge the ban in court after failing to overturn two previous bans on marches in Harare – where police rounded up MDC followers and dispersed them with batons and water cannon and tear gas – and in Bulawayo.
They say government has this year levied subversion charges against at least 24 activists and opposition leaders, the highest number in a single year.
The MDC says the protest bans are unconstitutional, while police said they have evidence the protests would turn violent and did not have enough manpower to monitor them.
Bulawayo saw massive looting and destruction of property in January as protests against a steep rise in the fuel price turned violent, triggering an army crackdown that killed more than a dozen people.
Those deaths set a question mark against the 76-year-old president’s pledge to end Mugabe-era repression – which the bans of recent days further undermined.
“The move to ban demonstrations is predicated on a spurious assertion the opposition is plotting violent regime change is not sustainable,” said analyst Piers Pigou, Crisis Group’s senior consultant for southern Africa.
“This is contrary to precepts of a new administration President Mnangagwa and his team want to sell to the world.”
The president, who served as a Mugabe aide over four decades, is struggling to make good on promises that austerity-driven reforms will revive the economy, as popular anger mounts over triple-digit inflation, rolling power cuts and shortages of US dollars, fuel and bread.