BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE – Gunshots reverberated in a congested bus terminal in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, as the Zimbabwe Republic Police engaged in a street battle with crowds last month. The windows of a brand new BMW police vehicle were smashed as the irate crowds tried to drive the officers away from the terminal. Meanwhile, revolts in Tunisia and Egypt were occupying international attention.
Henry Mhlanga, the superintendent in charge of traffic police in Bulawayo, downplayed the incident, saying it was unfortunate but that police were simply checking on unlicensed vehicles. But the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association, a local residence association, says police were attempting to quash civil disobedience by reducing crowding in the streets. The association says the operation could have been an attempt to instill fear in Zimbabwe’s citizens to discourage them from replicating the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
After the debacle, police reinforcements swept through the terminal, arresting scores of people and impounding several vehicles. Tawanda Moyo, 21, a bus conductor for a local bus company, says he was arrested and taken to the central police station, where he was held for three days in an overcrowded cell without trial or access to legal representation.
“The police did not record any statement from us,” he says. “They just threw us into the cells and locked us up. The 17 of us who were in one cell were given only three bloody, soiled and tattered blankets. The only food we ate was that which was brought to us by friends.”
The group was released after three days. They say they each had to pay a bribe of $40 USD and received no receipts.
Bulawayo police would not comment on the situation.
After the string of political revolts in the Middle East and North Africa and a popular, anonymous Facebook group calling for the overthrow of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, there has been a marked increase in armed personnel on Zimbabwe’s streets. Local citizens say this increased presence has also led to the questionable arrests of citizen groups in several cities. Mugabe has publicly called for an end to violence, and police say they are just doing their jobs. As Mugabe calls for early elections, Zimbabweans say it is just another attempt to safeguard his power. Many doubt the country is ready for a free and fair vote.
The wave of revolution that began in Tunisia in January has since spread to a handful of other nations, engulfing Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and Libya, where military action escalated this week. The uprisings have ousted the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders, who had been in power for 32 and 23 years. Zimbabweans say this has caused panic among its country’s longtime ruling party, as Mugabe has been in power for 31 years.
Chiedza Muti, 35, a vendor who sells her wares at a mall near the bus terminal in Bulawayo, says the Zimbabwe Republic Police has intensified patrols of the city since the other African revolts began.
“After every 30 minutes, a truckload of heavily armed anti-riot officers driving Isuzu vehicles drive by,” Muti says. “Sometimes they stop for some minutes to take a closer look at the situation on the ground. It’s very frightening to work with all those guns and helmets gleaming around in the streets.”
Locals like Muti say the increased police presence has led to the arrests of innocent citizens.
The Zimbabwe Republic Police arrested 46 people in late February in Harare, the capital city, for organizing an illegal meeting. Police allege the meeting was meant to plan an uprising against the government. According to court records, police say that the group, which included 11 women and was led by Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former opposition member of Parliament and prominent Mugabe critic, was watching videos and formulating a plot to overthrow Mugabe.
Police say the meeting was also illegal because it violated section 24 of the country’s Public Order and Security Act, which mandates that any organizer of a public gathering must notify the police of the gathering in writing at least four days in advance.
The group has been charged with treason, a crime that carries a life sentence or the death penalty in Zimbabwe. The group told the court that the meeting was organized to discuss the events in North Africa and the Middle East.
The group’s lawyer, Alec Muchadehama, says as many as 10 of the defendants were tortured at Harare Central Police Station. Police have not responded to these allegations.
In another town south of Harare, Masvingo, three Masvingo Polytechnic College students were arrested last month for watching a satirical movie depicting Mugabe’s assassination.
The students, Desire Chikwanda, 20, Monalisa Katsamure, 23, and Nyasha Chikumbirike, 23, were charged with undermining the authority of and insulting the president. The students were detained for two days before they were released on bail. Their trial began this month.