HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe’s president on Tuesday called violence by security forces “unacceptable and a betrayal” and said it will be investigated after a week of economic crisis and crackdown in which activists said a dozen people were killed.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa also called for a “national dialogue” among all political parties as well as religious and civic leaders, even as some of them on Tuesday said arrests had continued overnight. He spoke upon returning home after skipping a high-profile fundraising visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to deal with the unrest.
Zimbabwe’s military was in the streets last week for the first time since post-election violence in August in which six people were killed. This time, people reported being hunted down in their homes by security forces and severely beaten. Doctors treated dozens of gunshot wounds. More than 600 people were arrested, with most denied bail.
Mnangagwa said chaos and insubordination will not be tolerated and “if required, heads will roll.”
He defended, however, the dramatic fuel price increase that began the unrest by making gasoline in Zimbabwe the most expensive in the world. Authorities had said it was meant to ease the demand that had created miles-long lines as gas stations, with some families sleeping in their cars.
But Zimbabweans who had seen little or no improvement in the collapsed economy under Mnangagwa, who took office in late 2017 after the ouster of longtime leader Robert Mugabe, lost their patience. Activists and labor leaders called for people to stay at home for three days in protests. Others took to the streets, with some looting in anger or desperation.
Mnangagwa’s government has blamed the unrest on the opposition, despite witness accounts of security forces opening fire on crowds and killing or wounding bystanders, including a 17-year-old.
“Everyone has the right to protest, but this was not a peaceful protest,” Mnangagwa said Tuesday, noting “wanton violence and cynical destruction.”
Mnangagwa has previously said he is open to dialogue with the main opposition MDC party, which narrowly lost the July election and lost a court challenge alleging fraud. The president has dismissed the idea of forming a government of national unity, and his officials in recent days have said the opposition was trying to force talks by stirring up unrest.
The opposition on Tuesday was skeptical of Mnangagwa’s call for dialogue, describing it as a “gimmick to buy time.”
“Mnangagwa’s overtures are always on Twitter. He knows where we are, yet he has chosen not to talk to us directly, he has never approached us, so this is another PR exercise,” MDC spokesman Jacob Mafume said. “Why are soldiers still beating up people and the police arresting people if he is sincere?”
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said police arrested labor federation leader Japhet Moyo “in the wee hours of the night” just hours after releasing him. He is charged with subversion for his role in organizing the national strike along with pastor and activist Evan Mawarire.
Police overnight also detained some 28 people who were receiving medical attention at a hospital in the capital, Harare, the lawyers’ group said, calling it “deplorable and very inhumane.”
Kumbirai Mafunda, the group’s spokesman, told The Associated Press that lawyers will go to court to press for them to be allowed to resume treatment.
Zimbabwe’s government had ordered an internet blackout in recent days as reports of abuses emerged, but the High Court on Monday ordered that full service be restored, calling the shutdown illegal and saying only the president has the authority to make such an order. The government alleges the internet has been used to organize the unrest.
At Davos, Mnangagwa had planned to appeal for foreign investment and loans but faced a more difficult reception than the one a year ago, when optimism was relatively high about a “new Zimbabwe.” Indicating the severity of the economic crisis, neighboring South Africa has confirmed it recently turned down Mnangagwa’s request for a $1.2 billion loan.
The week of turmoil again brought questions about tensions between Mnangagwa and the man he left in charge as acting president while he was overseas, hard-line former military commander and now Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, who had led the military effort to oust Mugabe.
Both Mnangagwa and Chiwenga have dismissed persistent reports of a rift, and they hugged upon the president’s return late Monday and chatted for 15 minutes on the runway.