Zim opposition in court over post-election violence

(Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)

(Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)

Members of Zimbabwe’s defeated opposition party were appearing in court Saturday, accused of staging violent protests against alleged rigging in this week’s historic elections.

The appearance by 24 people arrested in a police raid at opposition MDC headquarters comes a day after President Emmerson Mnangagwa was declared the winner of Zimbabwe’s first polls since autocrat Robert Mugabe was ousted last year.

At least six people died after troops in the capital Harare opened fire on demonstrators on Wednesday, alleging that Mnangagwa had stolen the election from MDC leader Nelson Chamisa.

The crackdown sparked an international outcry, raising grim memories of the violence that marred polls under Mugabe’s iron-fisted rule.

The 16 men and eight women appearing in court are accused of smashing windows at offices of the ruling ZANU-PF party during the protests, throwing stones and setting fire to vehicles.

Mnangagwa has accused the opposition of fomenting the unrest, but said on Friday that he would set up an independent commission to investigate the killings.

“No democratic process is flawless,” Mnangagwa said, but he insisted Monday’s election was “free, fair and credible”, a far cry from the fraud-tainted polls of the Mugabe era.

He also called for unity, telling Chamisa: “You have a crucial role to play in Zimbabwe’s present and in its unfolding future.” 

Chamisa, a 40-year-old pastor and lawyer, has urged his supporters to refrain from violence as he prepares to challenge the results in court.

“We won but they declared the opposite. You voted but they cheated,” he said on Twitter on Saturday.

Mnangagwa, 75, has said Chamisa is free to mount a legal challenge, though such a move appears to have little chance of changing the result.

Mnangagwa won 50.8% against Chamisa’s 44.3%, according to the Zimbabwe Election Commission — just scraping over the 50% threshold needed to avoid a presidential run-off.

‘Army beatings’

A former right-hand man to Mugabe, Mnangagwa was chosen to lead ZANU-PF after the brief military intervention last November that ousted him after 37 years in power.

Mnangagwa was allegedly involved in state violence during the 2008 elections when the opposition pulled out of the run-off, following the deaths of at least 200 supporters in attacks.

He has hailed the first post-Mugabe polls as a “new beginning” and pledged to represent all Zimbabweans, including those who did not vote for him.

But rights groups have expressed concern that heavy-handed policing to prevent more post-election protests indicate how he intends to govern.

Amnesty International said more than 60 people had been “arbitrarily arrested” in a post-election clampdown on the opposition.

Residents said they had seen troops beating up civilians in Chitungwiza, a sprawling satellite town south of Harare, on Friday night.

“I don’t even know why they were beating those people,” said Christine, a retailer of copper products in Harare who witnessed the beatings.

“It was the soldiers, they are still out there. We are even scared of going out.”

Investment push

Seeking to lift Zimbabwe’s status as an international pariah, Mnangagwa has made a priority of attracting badly needed foreign investment.

He pronounced the country “open for business” on Friday, adding: “We want to leapfrog and catch up with other developing countries.”

Mugabe, who had ruled since independence from Britain in 1980, left Zimbabwe’s economy in tatters, presiding over the seizure of white-owned farms and hyperinflation.

Health and education services are in ruins, while millions of people have fled abroad to seek work. 

Anthoni Van Nieuwkerk, an international relations professor at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, said Mnangagwa was well aware that his recovery plan required “goodwill and support” from the international community.

“If they roll out the soldiers — beyond what happened on Wednesday — throughout the country to suppress dissent, and if more people are killed, then this will spell no good news for this new incoming president,” he told AFP.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa was the first key partner to congratulate Mnangagwa, calling on all Zimbabweans to accept the result.

The United States, meanwhile, urged Mnangagwa to show “magnanimity” and the opposition to show “graciousness in defeat”.

International observers have largely praised the conduct on election day itself, when ZANU-PF also won a large majority in parliamentary elections.

European Union monitors have however said that Mnangagwa, who enjoyed tacit military support and control of state resources, benefited from an “un-level playing field”.

Susan Njanji

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