Uneasy calm in Zimbabwe amid stay-at-home fuel price protest

Internet blackouts and business closures follow days of deadly protest in Zimbabwe's major cities.

    Zimbabwe police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd gathering for bread at a shopping centre near central Harare [Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters]
    Zimbabwe police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd gathering for bread at a shopping centre near central Harare [Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters]

    An uneasy calm returned to Zimbabwe's main cities but businesses and schools remained closed and mobile networks enforced a government internet shutdown on the final day of a national strike triggered by a steep rise in fuel prices.

    In central Harare, shops, banks, fast-food chains, and some government offices were closed on Wednesday with little traffic on the roads. There was no public transport and some people could be seen walking from townships into the city centre.

    Workers' trade unions called for a three-day nationwide shutdown to protest the government's decision to more than double the price of fuel. The action comes shortly after junior doctors ended a 40-day strike demanding salaries in US dollars and better working conditions.

    "Ours is all about fuel. Ours is all about the skyrocketing prices of basic needs from fuel, health and food," said Kumbirai Magorimbo, while reading newspaper headlines in central Harare.

    Since 2009, after hyperinflation and the devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar, authorities refused to use national currency in payments and replaced it with US dollars, euros, South African rands and yuan. The southern African nation has experienced an acute shortage of dollars that has hampered imports of fuel and drugs and caused a spike in prices. 

    Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa broke his silence and called for calm while he is out of the country.

    "I've been deeply saddened by the events in our beloved homeland," Mnangagwa said in a statement on Twitter. He is on a European trip that is meant to shore up investment in Zimbabwe's ailing economy.

    "As I have said numerous times, everyone in Zimbabwe has the right to express themselves freely - to speak out, to criticize and to protest," he said, before adding that the demonstrations involved "violence and vandalism" and were not "peaceful, legal protests".

    Deadly violence

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    The news agency Reuters reported that three people, including a police officer, died during Monday's demonstrations in the capital and second city Bulawayo.

    Eight people were killed on Monday when police and military fired on crowds, according to Amnesty International. Another rights group said 26 people suffered gunshot wounds and that some were afraid to go to hospitals for fear of arrest or assault.

    Police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd gathering for bread at a shopping centre near central Harare on Wednesday, as businesses remained shut, a Reuters witness said.

    Activist pastor Evan Mawarire, who led a national shutdown in 2016, was arrested from his house in a Harare suburb.

    "They are alleging that he incited violence through Twitter and other forms of social media in the central business district," Beatrice Mtetwa, Mawarire's lawyer, said on Wednesday.

    Zimbabweans accuse President Mnangagwa of failing to live up to pre-election pledges to kick-start growth and to have a clean break from the 37-year rule of Robert Mugabe, who was forced out in a de facto coup in November 2017.

    The government has blamed the protests on the main opposition and local rights groups, saying they were part of a plot to overthrow Mnangagwa's government.

    'Beyond our control'

     

    Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, the country's largest mobile operator, said its internet services had been cut off following an order from the government amid deadly protests in the country.

    "We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control," Econet said in a text message to customers on Wednesday, adding that all networks and providers had suspended their services.

    Internet services were cut by mid-morning on Tuesday, leaving many people without access to social media platforms amid accusations that the government wanted to prevent images of its heavy-handedness from being broadcast around the world.

    Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa told reporters on Tuesday that she was not aware of the blackout, and suggested that the "events" were timed to coincide with the absence of Mnangagwa and the spotlight of the upcoming World Economic Forum.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies