Zimbabweans, civic society and the world at large reacted with anger to the military’s use of brute force to disperse protesters who had poured into the streets of Harare on Wednesday.
Police have since confirmed the death of six people after the military indiscriminately fired shots at the fleeing demonstrators, resulting in several people being injured.
The protesters were voicing concern over the inordinate delays in the release of election results and alleged bias by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec).
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been calling for peace since he ascended to power through a soft coup last November, has launched investigations into the killings.
The excessive use of force by the army has been roundly condemned, with observers urging them to exercise restraint.
In a statement, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) condemned the heavy-handedness of the military saying it was criminal and unconstitutional.
ZHRC chairperson Elasto Mugwadi said the use of live ammunition and excessive force on civilians was uncalled for.
“While the commission does not in any way support violence, hooliganism and vandalism by any protester, constitutionally there are better ways of managing protests without infringing on the rights of citizens, especially the right to life which must be jealously guarded by all State institutions and at all times,” said Mugwadi.
“ZHRC urges that the army only be deployed were necessary for law and order and in strict compliance with the relevant legal provisions and internationally accepted standards, including restrictions on the use of live ammunition against protesters. To us it is very much criminal. It is a criminal act to kill someone.
“While there are investigations, there was a violation of peoples’ rights — the right to life. That is the fundamental right, the right of all rights. We will on our own part investigate and try to find out why this happened the way it did,” he added.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) said it was sad that soldiers chose to spray bullets at fleeing multitudes when they could have used minimal pressure.
“The soldiers have been firing live ammunition on fleeing civilians in the crowded streets with some of the injured and dead being shot in the back, including women,” said ZimRights, urging the international community especially the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the African Union (AU) as well as those countries that have deployed observers to intervene to stop Zimbabwe’s descent into a deeper political crisis.
Professor of World Politics at the London School of Oriental and African Studies Stephen Chan said the heavy-handed response by the army, never mind the amount of provocation from the demonstrators, was a missed opportunity for Mnangagwa to demonstrate to the world that the country had turned a corner and the State had dismantled its violent machinery.
“It’s a disaster for Zanu PF. There were so many international observers in the downtown area, going to briefings and going to Zec. They saw it all. Zanu PF must have been smugly congratulating itself for stage-managing the election, and projecting an image of a ‘new’ Zanu PF. In one fell swoop, they ruined their own show,” said Chan.
He said a huge amount of goodwill and benefit of the doubt that Mnangagwa had gained could have been wiped away for the ugly incidents of Wednesday.
“I cannot think of a more clumsy reaction to the crowd. The police had enough water cannon, if that is what was needed with an unruly crowd. Teargas and bullets from soldiers was totally ridiculous,” added Chan.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said the army failed to discharge its duties, which are, among other things, to maintain peace and protect civilians.
“While authorities may have been concerned by the conduct of the protesters, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF)’s conduct is unacceptable and does not justify the brutal response. Such conduct by elements of the ZDF is a serious threat to national security.
In a joint statement, the International Election Observation Missions in Harare said while they recognise the right to peaceful protest, they condemn vandalism and destruction of property and called on political party supporters to abide by the law.
It said while they appreciate the generally peaceful and orderly pre-electoral environment and on voting day, it was of grave concern that this has been marred by outbreaks of post-election violence.
“At the outset, we extend our sympathies to the families and loved ones of those affected by these troubling incidents,” said the mission, while urging Zec to release the full and detailed results expeditiously, in a transparent and accountable manner.
In a statement, United Nations spokesperson Farhan Haq expressed concern over incidents of violence, calling on the political leaders and the population as a whole to exercise restraint and reject any form of violence while awaiting resolution of the disputes and announcement of the election results.
The United States Carter Centre yesterday said political actors must be responsible enough and leash their supporters.
South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) has expressed grave concern over the violence.
Briefing the media at DIRCO’s monthly engagement yesterday, minister Lindiwe Sisulu said the South African government could not, however, go into details of the elections until the Zec has concluded its work.
“President Cyril Ramaphosa and (the department) are very happy with the way the election started off. It was very peaceful and (Zimbabweans) were very happy.
“…We are concerned about what happened yesterday but we want to give the ZEC the space and respect that they deserve,” Sisulu said.
MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa has denied responsibility for the violence, after Mnangagwa’s administration heaped the blame on his leadership.
“I don’t believe that it is an individual responsible but government. Who gave the instructions to kill these innocent civilians, who have been arrested? How am I responsible for the killings as if I command an army?” he said yesterday.
His spokesperson Nkululeko Sibanda said the protesters were merely exercising their right to demonstrate.
“Not sure whether those are MDC supporters but they seemed to be Zimbabweans who love their country and are defending their votes, you will hear from the president very soon,” said Sibanda.