HARARE – Panicking authorities went back on their word yesterday, effectively banning the opposition’s planned mega demonstration in Harare today, which was set to be led by MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai.
After security chiefs — who met the organisers of the protest march on Monday — had appeared to okay the demo, police made a surprising U-turn yesterday, decreeing that the opposition could only gather in the capital’s central business district and not march.
Sources who spoke to the Daily News after the mega protest march was outlawed said top police brass were apparently fearful that the demonstration could turn violent.
In their formal letter yesterday to the organisers of the march, the National Electoral Reform Agenda (Nera), police were emphatic that the opposition should not march in the streets of Harare, but rather just gather at what the MDC now refers to as Freedom Square, next to Rainbow Towers Hotel.
The police also said only a maximum of 10 people would be allowed to take the opposition’s petition to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) — orders which sparked anger within Nera, which immediately gave notice that it would file an urgent court application to challenge the decrees.
“In terms of Section 26 (6) of Posa (Chapter 11: 17) I impose the following conditions:
“(The) 2 500 people you intend to bring into town are to gather at Robert Mugabe Square … 10 people to proceed to Zec offices and hand over the petition.
“No marching or gathering in the city centre. After handing over the petition, the gathering must disperse immediately.
“Provision of Section 59 and 86 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe amended 20/13 were also considered in coming up with this decision,” police chief superintendent, a J Chizemo wrote in his memo to Nera.
He added that the decision to impose these onerous conditions had also been reached after analysing previous Nera demonstrations.
“Reference is made to consultations and negotiations meeting held between yourself and the regulating authority on March 20, 2017 at Harare Central District.
“In view of the evidence I have at hand arising from the incidents which happened in the previous Nera demonstrations, where property was damaged, shops looted, government institutions destroyed, innocent people assaulted and vehicles damaged, the business community of the Central Business District has expressed fear that a demonstration of 2 500 people will result in public disorder and breach of peace.
“The apprehension of fear in the business community in the CBD cannot be dispelled by the arrangement that you intend to put in place, as more than 2 500 people will march along the street disturbing the smooth flow of human and vehicular traffic for more than four hours,” police said further.
Nera legal secretary Douglas Mwonzora said, soon after receiving the letter, that they would approach the court yesterday.
“We are planning to take legal action against these conditions, as we are not happy with them.
“People will tomorrow (today) gather at Freedom Square before we advise them the way to go, but the demonstration is not going to stop. The people of Zimbabwe have the right to protest,” he said.
The development comes after the country’s much-feared Joint Operations Command (Joc) — a security think tank comprising military, police, prisons and Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) bosses — had demanded to meet with the opposition on Monday, before allowing them to go ahead with their march.
Mwonzora also confirmed last night that Tsvangirai was “champing at the bit” to lead today’s demonstration.
“Yes, president Tsvangirai is itching to participate in tomorrow (today)’s demonstration. We all want to say no to election rigging.
“We are expecting all the leaders of political parties in Nera to lead the protest, although it will be up to them (party leaders) to decide at which stage of the demonstration to join,” Mwonzora added.
Tsvangirai and former vice president Joice Mujuru have been playing leading roles in Nera, which is demanding a raft of electoral reforms before the country holds the eagerly-anticipated 2018 national polls.
Mujuru’s spokesperson Gift Nyandoro also confirmed to the Daily News last night that the widow of revered liberation struggle hero, Solomon, would “definitely participate” in today’s demonstration.
“She will be among the demonstrators unless something happens. This is a grand opportunity for the opposition to come together and send a message to Mugabe that the will of the people should be respected because without a credible election, Mugabe’s leadership will remain engulfed in a legitimacy crisis,” he said.
Zimbabwe’s quest to acquire biometric voter registration (BVR) kits has caused a huge storm among opposition parties who view the government’s involvement in the purchase of the equipment as problematic.
The controversy erupted into the open recently following the government’s sudden decision to sideline the UNDP from assisting in the procurement of the kits, with unanswered questions being raised about how and where the stone-broke government will secure funding for this, to the staggering tune of $17 million.
The opposition has alleged that the government is hijacking the process to rig next year’s eagerly-anticipated national elections.
“It was all along agreed that the procurement of the BVR kits would be done by Zec through the UNDP. Consequently, a joint advertisement was flighted by the UNDP and Zec calling upon all potential suppliers of the kits to place their bids.
“These bids were opened at the UNDP offices in Copenhagen and this was witnessed by both Zec and political parties. It was further agreed that once the winner of the tender was declared, political parties would second their technical experts to inspect these kits.
“But suddenly, the government announced that it was taking over the BVR kits procurement process. Among other things, this means that the government will now select the supplier of these kits.
“Crucially, political parties and other key stakeholders will thus not be able to monitor the process,” Mwonzora pointed out recently.
This comes as opposition parties are still smarting from the electoral controversies of the 2013 election, when an Israeli company, Nikuv, allegedly manipulated the vote in favour of Zanu PF.
“Nera totally rejects this move because it is designed to enable the government to manipulate the procurement process. That way the government will also manipulate the 2018 election process,” Mwonzora said.
Analysts say the Nera protest could herald the beginning of a new season of protests, following the relative calm that has prevailed in the country over the past few months, after the panicking government used brute force to crush similar rolling protests last year.
On Thursday, a day after the Nera demonstration, disaffected war veterans who have been feuding with Mugabe since last year, will have their own indaba where they are expected to discuss the welfare of their members, as well as the ruling Zanu PF’s deadly tribal, factional and succession wars.
Their meeting follows last week’s High Court ruling which quashed an earlier decision by the police to bar them from holding the indaba.
The vets are pressing Mugabe to name a successor and ditch a faction rabidly opposed to his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, from succeeding the nonagenarian.
Analysts also say the country’s worsening cash shortages, which almost caused riots by angry tobacco farmers last week, are likely to fuel further tensions from this week onward.
Zimbabwe is in the grip of a debilitating economic crisis which has seen the government failing to pay its workers on time.