Harare – A planned mass demonstration against Zimbabwe’s veteran president Robert Mugabe failed to kick off in the capital Harare on Saturday, as riot police patrolled the streets to enforce a protest ban.
A coalition of opposition parties under the banner of the National Electoral Reform Agenda (Nera) had planned country-wide demonstrations demanding reform ahead of the 2018 election, when 92-year-old Mugabe plans to stand again.
But a month-long protest ban and a heavy police presence saw the event fizzle out before it started, with just small groups of activists demonstrating in the surburbs.
The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, which is part of Nera, said people were intimidated and told not to participate in the protest.
“The people were threatened by police and people in plain clothes. They were told, ‘We will beat you up and you will disappear if you embark in the demonstrations’,” said MDC spokesperson Obert Gutu.
Police this week issued an order barring protests in the capital.
Campaigners said they would challenge the ban through the courts, which had overturned a similar order earlier this month.
Mugabe has vowed a crackdown on dissent and blasted judges for “reckless” rulings allowing previous demonstrations.
But in the second city of Bulawayo, close to a thousand protesters staged a peaceful march on Saturday after a high court ruling gave them permission to take to the streets.
Police stood by with armoured vehicles and water cannons.
“All we are demanding is that we want a free, fair and credible election,” MDC deputy president Thokozani Khupe told the crowd.
“We are drawing a line in the sand and we are saying never again will we allow an election to be held where elections will be rigged.”
Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party won the last general elections in 2013, which were marred by electoral fraud.
Opposition to the ageing leader’s 36-year rule has grown in recent months with a surge of public demonstrations, triggered by an economic crisis that has left banks short of cash and the government struggling to pay its workers.
Mugabe has often used brutal force to silence his opponents and warned the protesters last week they were “playing a dangerous game”.
Unemployment is about 90% in Zimbabwe, which has been in the grips of a cash shortage worsened by a severe regional drought.