Armed police have broken up a press conference due to be given by Zimbabwe’s opposition leader as Emmerson Mnangagwa – declared the winner in the country’s bitterly disputed presidential race – called for “peace and unity” and declared that his administration “protected freedom of speech and the right to criticise the government”.
Mr Mnangagwa, once former leader Robert Mugabe’s loyal ally who had played a key part in overthrowing Africa’s longest-serving head of state and becoming acting president, was declared winner in the poll by a very narrow margin, avoiding a second round runoff against his chief rival, Nelson Chamisa, by 0.8 per cent after getting past the stipulated 50 per cent mark.
In extraordinary scenes the police in full riot gear charged into a hotel in the capital and ordered journalists, international observers and human rights activists out of a garden where Mr Chamisa, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was due to give his first public statement on the outcome of the polls.
The police had turned up at the Bronte hotel, where many members of the media and foreign election monitors are staying, in three personnel carriers backed up by a water cannon. They ran in shouting “out, out” and banging their riot sticks on their shields.
They could not, however, provide a reason that anyone should do so, and left after a standoff. They were followed down the road by the media, the encounter recorded on cameras from around the world.
Later the information minister, SK Moyo, arrived at the hotel and urged journalists to return to the venue. He would not explain what had happened earlier, but kept saying: “You need to go to the press conference.”
Mr Chamisa, when he eventually started, apologised to the media and the international observers for the police raid. He claimed it had been instigated by the ruling Zanu-PF party. He then went on to repeat his allegation, often made during the campaign, that the election had been rigged.
“We have won this election emphatically, we have the figures to prove it, Mnangagwa did not win it. The election was fraudulent, illegal, illegitimate,” he insisted.
“The results were issued in the dead of night because they wanted to keep the people in the dark. But people know the truth. Where are the celebrations for Zanu-PF? If you go around the country, you will find no celebration anywhere. This is a black day for democracy, a day of mourning.”
To laughter from his supporters, Mr Chamisa said: “This was in fact very poor rigging of votes. At least Mr Mugabe’s rigging was sophisticated; this was pedestrian, so poor that the numbers don’t even add up.”
The MDC leader maintained that his party would overturn the election result, but refused to say how it would be done, “because to do it would reveal strategy and one shouldn’t reveal strategy”.
However, on the eve of the count, Mr Chamisa had dismissed the idea of making a legal challenge to the election result. He said: “That would be a slippery path. When you go into the court, you are going into the lion’s den. We are not going to be a meal for the lions.”
Mr Mnangagwa, in a tweet about the police raid, said: “The scenes today at the Bronte Hotel have no place in our society and we are urgently investigating the matter to understand exactly what happened. Over the past nine months we have protected freedom of speech and the right to criticise the government.”
Later, at a press conference, he said that lethal violence on the streets on Wednesday, in which troops shot dead six people protesting against election fraud, was “unfortunate”. He insisted that he had won the election fairly and intended to govern for all the people.
Asked about criticisms of the campaign made in reports of international observers, he pointed the report by EU monitors, saying: “I am so happy with what they said. They told me it was peaceful, happy and free. There are some grey areas where there could be improvements, and we are looking into them.”
Of his electoral rival, he added: “To Nelson Chamisa, I want to say: you have a crucial role to play in Zimbabwe’s present and its unfolding future. Let us both call for peace and unity in our land.”
The police, however, had raided the MDC headquarters on Thursday, arresting people and taking away computers. The operation was part of a crackdown following the clashes between security forces and crowds protesting against the country’s election commission, which said that the ruling Zanu-PF party had won the parliamentary poll by a large majority.
Mr Chamisa and other opposition leaders were being investigated, according to a warrant, of suspected “possession of dangerous weapons” and encouraging “ public violence”. But the real reason for the raid, said Mr Chamisa, was to remove evidence the party has discovered of vote rigging by Mr Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF. “But don’t worry, the evidence has already been taken to a safe house,” he said.
Mr Chamisa had warned that the public would take direct action and he would not be responsible for what might follow “if they find that their vote has been ignored. They did not vote for ED Mnangagwa and they wil not accept him being imposed as the president. We do not control the people, they will do what they think is right.”
The mood on the street was mixed: some people felt the election had been hijacked and wanted action; others were deeply apprehensive about repercussions of protests, especially after the killings of two days ago.
Outside Harvest House, the MDC headquarters, crowds had gathered awaiting instructions from party chiefs.
Goodman Panashe, a polling agent in the election, had been chased and beaten by soldiers on Wednesday. Showing the weals on his arms and legs from sjamboks, leather whips, he exclaimed: “Look what they did to me: they beat people, killed people. But we must not be afraid. We have a right to protest and we shall be doing so, they cannot stop us.” His companion, Irvine Tinotenda, wanted to add: “They can try to stop us, but this time it won’t be so easy. We were with the police, who were fine, but that military unit was sent to attack us. The military took us by surprise, we are better prepared if that happens again.”
But others wanted calm. Idris Kudzai had driven to check on his electronic shop, which had been locked up since Wednesday. “I am not going to open again until I know that there is safety. I am losing money now, but you cannot get compensation from insurance companies for looting. I know some people are unhappy with the elections. But we must put that aside now and move on if we want the economy to succeed.”
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