Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – Police in Zimbabwe have arrested prominent protest leader Evan Mawarire as part of a widening security crackdown on demonstrators following violent clashes and incidences of looting.
Mawarire, an activist pastor, had called for a three-day work stayaway to protest against a rise in fuel prices that angered citizens already struggling in the country’s ailing economy.
At least five people have reportedly been killed as a result of the brutal government response, which brought back memories of the mass protests that ended the four-decade rule of former President Robert Mugabe in 2017.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa succeeded him, promising a new era of freedom at his inauguration. However, he has allowed a security clampdown on protesters.
Mawarire is yet to be charged, but stands accused of inciting violence along with nearly 60 out of 200 protesters arrested in the past three days. The government blames civil society activists and the opposition for the nationwide demonstrations.
This isn’t the first time Mawarire has been arrested for his activism. In 2016, he was charged with inciting violence and attempted subversion of the state after calling for a day-long shutdown in protest against the policies of the Mugabe government.
Clashes between protesters and security forces continued in Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo on Wednesday, and tensions remained high in the western suburbs.
In the suburb of Sizinda, looting has ceased but a standoff between the people and the army continues. Military trucks were seen patrolling the neighbourhood, forcing residents to clear makeshift barricades and clean the streets with their bare hands.
After cleaning, the youths re-erected the stone barricades and the armed troops returned to line themselves up along the main highway.
Residents accused soldiers of beating civilians and conducting house raids.
Mafios Mumpuri, 69, a supermarket cleaner, told Al Jazeera he had been accused of erecting stone and tyre barricades.
“The soldiers told me to remove the stones because I was one of those who put them on the street. After I pushed them off, they beat me with a belt and told me to go home.
“I am pained by what they did to me, how can we expect our country to be free if they make us do things like this,” he said.
Josphat Ngulube, an activist and independent politician, said he witnessed several beatings during security raids and had taken at least four people to hospital in Sizinda.
He urged the government to listen to the people and end the violence.
“The demonstration has an impact because people are no longer listening to the government, they are not going to work because no one has confidence in the government.
“They need to engage with the people, they can’t kill us all,” he told Al Jazeera.
According to the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, over 100 people have been admitted to hospitals across the African nation, mostly with gunshot wounds.
Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, who narrowly lost a disputed election against Mnangagwa, visited the wounded in hospital in the capital, Harare. In a statement issued by the MDC Alliance, which he heads, the movement urged the Mnangagwa government to end the “siege” on citizens and recall the military.
“You do not have to do this and it does not have to be this way. Zimbabwe can be a prosperous nation, prosperity brings about peace, not guns and murder … Order the armed forces back to the barracks, allow peaceful protests and do not prevent a process on national dialogue,” the statement read.
Listing five demands, Chamisa appealed to the government to consider the far-reaching effect of its suppression of citizen’s rights and urged it to work towards resolving the economic crisis.
On Wednesday, the internet was partially restored in major urban centres after access was cut for more than 30 hours.
Adding to the woes of ordinary citizens, shops and fuel stations have remained closed during the stayaway. As a result, a black market has emerged with basic goods being sold at exorbitant prices.
A loaf of bread, which normally sells for $1.40, is being sold for $4 while a litre of fuel costs $3, more than three times the normal price.
Despite the black market price-gouging, the looting and the state’s actions against demonstrators, many Zimbabweans blame the government for the crisis and hope the stayaway action will not only pressure the government to work harder to fix the economy, but also bring about a change in the rule of Mugabe’s increasingly unpopular successor.
In a bid to win back the nation’s support, Mnangagwa, who is currently in Russia, posted a message on his Twitter account despite the social media blackout in his country.
“I understand the pain and frustration that many of you are feeling. Resolving Zimbabwe’s economic challenges is a monumental task, and while it may not always feel that way, we are moving in the right direction. We will get there,” he said.
Julia Banda is unconvinced and unmoved by the president’s Twitter post.
The 83-year-old, who lived through Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation struggle and Mugabe’s rule, told Al Jazeera that the protests are necessary for change.