President Robert Mugabe, under siege for the past two months from Zimbabweans demanding reforms and an end to economic problems, last Thursday reacted by banning demonstrations in Harare for the next two weeks.
The ban came on the eve of a massive demonstration by opposition parties under the National Election Reform Agenda (Nera) that was set for Harare on Friday.
A week earlier, police tried to stop another Nera demonstration despite the protest having been given the go ahead by the High Court. The police action resulted in one of the most violent clashes with opposition supporters in the central business district, which left Zimbabwe on the edge.
Despite the ban, Nera has vowed to step up the pressure on Mugabe until he institutes electoral reforms, with another protest planned for later this month. Douglas Mwonzora (DM), the Nera legal advisor and MDC-T secretary-general last week spoke to our senior reporter Richard Chidza about the ban and the opposition coalition’s future plans. Below are excerpts of the interview.
RC: There have been claims that opposition parties have been demobilised by government’s decision to ban demonstrations in Harare. How far true is that?
DM: We have filed a court application to challenge the Statutory Instrument 101A of 2016 and our issue is not with the ban but on the instrument, which has the force of law. We did not proceed with the (Friday) demonstration because of the Statutory Instrument and we expect the case to be heard anytime this weekend.
RC: But there are also reports of disagreements within political parties affiliated to Nera, with claims some parties even wanted out of the protests before the police announced the ban?
DM: There are no disagreements regarding demonstrations and everyone was agreed that the demonstrations should go ahead as had been planned until government moved in to interfere with our rights as enshrined in the Constitution.
RC: We have heard that there is growing mistrust between the leading parties in Nera amid accusations of links with, in particular, the Joint Operations Command and other sections of State security. What is your comment?
DM: There is no problem between the MDC and Zimbabwe People First (ZimPF). We had joint operations in Gweru and the police interfered with our planned joint operations in Harare in the form of demonstrations. I am sure they have no problems with us as a party. At least we can assume they do not have, but you never know. For now, everything as far as we are concerned, is on solid ground.
RC: Is there a plan to transform Nera from the current loose coalition solely focused on the issue of electoral reforms to a fully-fledged political coalition to contest the 2018 elections?
DM: Not yet, but it is not far-fetched for the political parties to begin to think around these issues. Our idea, at least from the side of the MDC, is to unite parties around issues not positions and our leader president Morgan Tsvangirai has been unequivocal on this matter.
RC: We have seen other parties such as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and others who were initially not part of Nera coming into the picture, what is happening?
DM: As at June 1 we had 13 political parties affiliated to Nera and they have not increased. However, there is convergence and agreement among different political parties in Zimbabwe that the dictatorship must be fought and removed. PDP has not officially joined though, but I must hasten to add that its leader, Tendai Biti, is handling the Nera case in which we are challenging Statutory Instrument 101A of 2016.
RC: Now that you are challenging the legality of SI 101A of 2016, is there scope to change the demonstration date from September 16?
DM: Yes, we have since brought back the date to September 9. We have already given notice to the police that we will go ahead with the demonstration on this date. You will remember that the demonstration had initially been scheduled for August 26, but after discussions with police, we moved it to September 2.
RC: After initially allowing the MDC-T to go ahead with demonstrations across the country peacefully, why do you think the police have reacted with such brute force as has been witnessed?
DM: It shows the timidity of President Robert Mugabe’s government and in particular the police. Before the crackdown, we had peaceful and successful demonstrations in Gweru, Bulawayo, Masvingo and Mutare.
But after the outbreak of police brutality we have seen a violent reaction from citizens. This is because, for example, in Harare police use tear gas on everyone, including people who had nothing to do with the demonstrations.
This angered the public who have obviously reacted the way we have seen. The torching of the police and ZBC vehicles had nothing to do with the MDC or any party in Nera, but had everything to do with the police and their irrelevant reaction to a peaceful petition that is guaranteed in the Constitution.
RC: So you blame the police for the destruction of property and violence that rocked Harare?
DM: The police cannot apportion blame on any opposition party or grouping because we have held demonstrations even under Nera and other platforms that have been peaceful. The blame should squarely be on the police and no one else.
RC: So you think it is the government that is scared and pushing police to react with such brutality?
DM: Police are acting on the orders of a faction within Zanu PF known as G40. This group is uncomfortable with peaceful demonstrations, freedom of association and assembly for reasons best known to them but likely to do with their wish to assume power.
RC: Why would you accuse a certain section of the ruling party not everyone in Zanu PF?
DM: It is because we are aware of this and their nefarious plot to arm-twist Parliament into amending the Bill of Rights.
They have hatched a plan to amend Section 59 of the Constitution that deals with the right to protest, petition and demonstrate.
The Constitution is however clear that any changes to the Bill of Rights should only be incremental and not to reduce those that are already there. We must warn them that the Constitution cannot be changed by the stroke of a pen.
They would need to go to a referendum to change this clause and we will oppose them right to the end.