By Zimbabwe Digital News, CNN, BBC and The Guardian
AN eerie quiet has enveloped Zimbabwe at nighfall after protests broke out throughout the day in Harare and Bulawayo over a sharp hike in the price of fuel announced by President Emmerson Mnangagwa
Soldiers and police were deployed after protesters barricaded roads and burned tires in the capital Harare. In Bulawayo, angry protesters threw stones at policemen as they marched towards the Bulawayo High Court, according to footage shared on social media
“We have no problem with anyone peacefully protesting against the fuel and commodities price hikes. We are equally worried just like any other citizen,” Zimbabwean Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi said.
“But there is nothing which the government can do to stop fuel price increases. We have been the country selling fuel at the lowest price in the region,” he said.
On Saturday night President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced a 150% fuel price hike, saying it was meant to ease ongoing fuel access that has been in short supply for months. The hike meant that petrol prices rose from $1.24 a liter to $3.31, and diesel went up from $1.36 a liter to $3.11.
Mnangagwa blamed the fuel shortage on growing usage in a growing economy, and said in a press conference that it was compounded by “rampant illegal currency and fuel trading activities,” which he deemed “unsustainable.”
According to the President, a rebate will be given to all registered businesses in the “manufacturing, mining, commerce, agriculture and transport” sectors, though exact details will be “decided at a later date.”
But after the announcement, citizens took to social media accusing Mnangagwa’s administration of further plunging Zimbabwe’s economy after years of cash shortages inherited from former President Robert Mugabe’s rule.
Zimbabwe abandoned its own currency, the Zimbabwean dollar, in 2009 after hyperinflation rendered it worthless. The country has since adopted the US dollar, the South African rand and other currencies.
Mnangagwa is currently on a foreign tour, visiting Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Azerbaijan in a bid to attract foreign investment to the country. He returns home after attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Military action, gunfire on the streets
Several people were injured by gunfire, with uncofirmed reported saying three people had died. Journalists in Harare saw military trucks with soldiers headed for Chitungwiza where clashes between police and protesters were reported.
The deployment of the military came one month after an official report said police and soldiers used “unjustified and disproportionate” force to kill 6 people during election protests in 2018.
The report also said opposition leaders had incited violence ahead of the deployment of soldiers in Harare last year.
The military also left their barracks for city streets in November 2017 in a takeover that led to the ouster of leader Robert Mugabe after decades in power.
The military’s deployment Monday was criticised by the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a group of several non-governmental organizations. “The move by the government to deploy armed police and soldiers against citizens exercising their democratic right to protests should be condemned in the strongest of terms,” the coalition said.
The government’s tactics “will serve to worsen the current crisis in the country while further alienating the country from the international community,” it said. The Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights said it attended to two cases of people shot in Chitungwiza, although it was not clear who shot them.
Police in Harare’s Mabvuku and Epworth suburbs fired tear gas to disperse angry demonstrators who burned tires, threw stones, blocked roads and prevented public transport vehicles from operating.
Children in school uniform joined the protests, which followed a weekend decision by the government to more than double the price of gasoline. Police also fired tear gas at protesters in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, witnesses said. The city is a center of opposition to the government.
‘Mnangagwa has failed, he must go…’
Many Zimbabweans directed their anger at President Mnangagwa, who took power after Mugabe was forced to resign but has not delivered on promises to revive the economy.
“Mnangagwa has failed, he must go,” one protester shouted. Others chanted opposition slogans and sang songs denouncing Mnangagwa, a former confidant of Mugabe who was elected as president in an election last year that the opposition said was rigged.
“He lied that our lives will improve, but things are getting worse by the day since he took over. Prices have been rising every day,” said protester Judith Chamambo.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, the country’s biggest labor federation, has called for a three-day strike this week.
Government spokesman Nick Mangwana said the opposition, civic groups and some foreign organizations are trying to use the fuel shortages and price increases to topple the government.
The main opposition MDC party, some non-governmental groups and prominent activist Evan Mawarire said they support the shutdown.
Worst outbreak of disorder in recent years, looting, blocked roads
The clashes were the worst outbreak of disorder in the southern African country since the aftermath of elections last year, when six civilians were shot dead by police.
They came on the first day of a three-day general strike called by unions amid an intensifying economic crisis. There were clashes in the capital, Harare, and in Bulawayo as police attempted to disperse groups of youths who had lit fires in streets, erected barricades and, in some cases, looted shops.
Other protesters blocked highways and tried to force companies that had remained open to comply with the shutdown. In the poor neighbourhood of Mabvuku, four civilians were reportedly shot and injured by police.
Legacies of the 37-year rule of Robert Mugabe, which ended with a military takeover in November 2017, include massive unemployment, huge government debts, an acute shortage of hard currency and a crumbling infrastructure.
“We have suffered enough,” said Philani Nyoni, an author who was part of the protest in Bulawayo. “The government is now aware that we are not happy with their stupid policies like the fuel price increase.”
President Mnangagwa, a stalwart of the ruling Zanu-PF party who took over on Mugabe’s resignation and won contested elections in July, has been unable to bring about the economic turnaround he promised voters and investors.
“We are now seeing the results of a volatility that has been building for some time and that everyone has been very complacent about,” said Piers Pigou, an expert in Zimbabwe with the International Crisis Group.
The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, issued a call for calm and said it was “in solidarity with peaceful citizen action across the country today”.
“We have warned this government that there is need for dialogue and … nothing has happened. This is what happens when you push people,” said Jacob Mafume, an MDC spokesperson.
The government has accused the strike organisers of pushing a political “regime change” agenda and engaging in “subversive political activities”.
Local currency coming back
“It has become obvious that there is deliberate plan to undermine and challenge the prevailing constitutional order,” said a government spokesman, Nick Mangwana, in a statement.
He said the government would “respond appropriately” against “all those who have been conspiring to subvert peace, law and order in the country”.
The mainstream opposition in Zimbabwe appeared to have been taken by surprise by the disorder. “The opposition appears not to be in charge or leading this,” said Pigou. “The conditions are such that there is a real opportunity for violent disruptive elements, either from within the opposition ranks or some kind of destabilising operation.”
Mthuli Ncube, the finance minister, told a townhall meeting on Friday the a new local currency would be introduced in less than 12 months.
Zimbabweans are haunted by memories of the Zimbabwean dollar, which became worthless as inflation spiralled to reach 500bn per cent in 2008, the highest rate in the world for a country not at war, wiping out pensions and savings.
Day of protests in pictures
Pictures AP, Reuters and Facebook
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