Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, organized a thousands-strong protest in the nation’s capital Thursday calling for nonagenarian dictator Robert Mugabe step down after 28 years of iron-fisted rule.
The BBC estimates the anti-Mugabe crowd at two thousand people, though the local newspaper New Zimbabwe says the crowd swelled to ten thousand people. Marchers wore shirts calling for a “new president” and held signs up demanding the government deliver jobs Mugabe long ago promised. The more brazen signs read “old clueless Mugabe must go.”
Speaking before the crowd, MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai made clear that the protesters were not calling for revolution, but merely fair elections. “We are not demanding an overthrow of the government… We are demanding a dignified exit for the tired Mugabe,” Tsvangirai said, adding, “It’s time Mugabe listens to the voice of the people. The people shall liberate themselves.”
Tsvangirai has been the nation’s most prominent opposition leader for more than a decade, running against Mugabe for president in 2002, 2008, and 2013. In 2008, he received more votes than Mugabe but “not enough to win,” according to the Mugabe government’s electoral oversight officials. A license to organize his march Thursday had previously been denied, but the nation’s High Court eventually permitted the assembly, which the BBC describes as largely peaceful, though police were equipped with water cannons to disperse the crowd if necessary.
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Government sympathizers have begun to paint the protests as disruptive, alleging that the mass of people hindered traffic and inadvertently hurt commuters and businesses. Harare Central police officer Newbert Saunyama issued a statement before permits were given for the march that it could hurt daily life in Harare, and the government-owned newspaper The Herald has published a piece after the event claiming some bystanders suffered physical harm.
“A CHOPPIES Supermarket security guard was hospitalised yesterday after sustaining serious injuries at the hands of rowdy MDC-T supporters,” The Herald claims, citing a police spokesman who said the protesters “blocked traffic for about an hour and also disturbed some Harare City Council officials who were conducting their work along the road before they attacked the security guard.” The security guard was allegedly attacked on the corner of Harare’s Robert Mugabe Road.
The MDC-T has made clear this is the first in a long string of protests. Upon receiving the permit, the party’s secretary general Douglas Mwonzora described the party as “very excited that we have trampled the Mugabe regime as the judgement passed today (Wednesday) by the courts allows us to march in Harare and all the other cities and towns around the country.”
Mugabe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), has responded to the protests alleging that the elections Tsvangirai lost to Mugabe were free and fair, and prove Mugabe can still govern. “President Mugabe was elected by the people of Zimbabwe and if they are now saying he must go then I wonder where?” a party spokesman said. “If they (the MDC) want him to go, then they should campaign and go for elections and win, that is the democratic way of changing the government.”
Critics have alternatively referred to the 2013 Zimbabwe presidential election as a “sham,” a “huge farce,” and a “masterclass in electoral fraud.”