Members of the military gesture as they patrol the streets of the capital Harare, Zimbabwe, August 2 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Members of the military gesture as they patrol the streets of the capital Harare, Zimbabwe, August 2 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Harare — Observers from the Commonwealth on Thursday condemned the Zimbabwean army’s deadly use of force to break up protests in Harare by opposition supporters claiming a presidential election had been rigged by the governing party.

Former colonial power Britain said it was deeply concerned by the situation, while the UN earlier called for restraint from all sides in the bloody aftermath to Monday’s election.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa meanwhile said he had been talking to opposition leader Nelson Chamisa to try to defuse tensions after clashes on the streets of Harare in which troops opened fire on opposition demonstrators, killing three.

The streets were calm on Thursday morning although many shops were shuttered in the city centre.

But the dispute over the conduct of the elections and the subsequent violence has punctured the euphoria over the army’s removal of long-standing strongman Robert Mugabe last November and the hope that Zimbabwe might be entering a new era of democracy after decades of political repression and economic ruin.

The international community’s view on the election is crucial to Harare’s efforts to patch up relations after years of hostility under Mugabe and to secure the billions of dollars of donor funding and investment needed to rebuild the economy.

But observers from the Commonwealth, the group of mainly former British colonies Mnangagwa had been hoping to rejoin, did not mince their words. "We categorically denounce the excessive use of force against unarmed civilians," former Ghanaian president John Mahama said in a statement on behalf of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth also urged the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to announce the results of the presidential vote.

Writing on Twitter, Mnangagwa called for an independent investigation into the violence and offered his condolences to the families of victims.

He said he had been in contact with Chamisa. But there was no response from the MDC Alliance leader, who claimed several times on Twitter to have "won the popular vote" but provided no numbers or concrete evidence of fraud by the governing Zanu-PF party.

The deployment of soldiers and their shooting and beating of unarmed protesters is likely to set back efforts to end the pariah status Zimbabwe acquired in the latter half of Mugabe’s nearly four decades in charge.

In particular, it is likely to confirm suspicions that the generals who ousted Mugabe, including army chief-turned vice-president Constantino Chiwenga, remain the pre-eminent political force.

"The unmeasured military response bears witness to a security apparatus little reformed since the Mugabe era," said Christopher McKee, chief executive of political risk consultancy PRS Group.

"It matters little whether this heavy-handed response came on Mnangagwa’s orders: evidence that the president lacks the authority to control the security forces will be just as damning in terms of the impact on Zimbabwe’s international rehabilitation," he said.

Piers Pigou, a Zimbabwe expert at the International Crisis Group think-tank, agreed.

"Deployment of the army reveals the uncomfortable truth that, eight months after Mugabe was ousted in a coup, the army remains the pre-eminent political force," he said.

China, an important source of funding under Mugabe and Mnangagwa, said it believed the election had proceeded in an orderly fashion. A foreign ministry spokesman "noted" reports of Wednesday’s violence.

The website of Zimbabwe’s election commission was off-line on Thursday after being taken out by unidentified cyber hackers on Wednesday night.