HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s main opposition party called off planned anti-government demonstrations on Friday, saying it aimed to avert bloodshed after police rounded up its followers and dispersed them with batons and water cannon.
The Movement for Democratic Change, which accuses President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government of repression and economic mismanagement, had called a demonstration for Friday as the start of a nationwide protest movement.
But police announced on Thursday that the protest would be banned, and an MDC court appeal to have the ban lifted failed. Police patrolled the usually bustling city center in lorries and on foot, firing tear gas to disperse any groups that attempted to gather as most shops and business shut.
Around 100 MDC supporters who gathered early were chased by baton-wielding officers from a city square. Armed police barred access to the MDC’s Harare offices.
“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,” Nelson Chamisa, the MDC leader, told reporters in Harare.
“We will continue to mobilize 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.
Police said in a statement that 91 people were arrested for various offences. “The police is firm on the ground to ensure that law and order is maintained,” the statement read.
Outside the court that rejected the appeal to lift the ban on protesting, MDC Vice President Tendai Biti said: “The constitution guarantees the right to demonstration ... yet this fascist regime has denied and proscribed this right.”
“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.”
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.
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 had rejected his invitation to talks. The MDC leader has said he sit down only if there is a neutral arbiter.
“The doors of national dialogue are still open to all political leaders,” Mnangagwa said.
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 willingness to tolerate dissent in a country tainted by a long history of repression under Mugabe, its ruler for nearly 40 years. Opponents say Mnangagwa has failed to make good on promises of political and economic reform.
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 an election last year to help usher in a new dawn of expanded rights and an end to the country’s international pariah status, but so far society has only become more polarized.
In January, more than a dozen people died during a crackdown in Harare against fuel demonstrations.
In the days before Friday’s planned demonstration, six political activists were abducted from their homes at night and beaten by armed men, rights groups said.
On Friday, police and soldiers searched buses, taxis and private vehicles at checkpoints and demanded identity documents.
One woman was taken to hospital with a deep gash on her head after police charged at MDC supporters.
“We are tired, enough is enough,” MDC member Patience Gurure said moments before police dispersed her group.
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 and Peter Graff