Harare’s city centre resembled a war zone on Tuesday evening when uniformed soldiers went on the rampage, beating up every police officer in sight and sending members of the public scurrying for cover.
The soldiers – wielding sjamboks, batons and sticks – stormed Robert Mugabe Road, one of the busiest streets in the central business district, and attacked police officers in unprecedented scenes which left onlookers dazed.
Policemen who ran away and sought shelter at Harare Central Police Station were not spared the beatings as the soldiers pursued them and thrashed them inside the police camp.
According to eyewitness accounts, trouble began when a policeman threw metal spikes under an army truck, deflating the tyres. It is still unclear what prompted the police action.
“After the soldiers had their tyres deflated by police, they (the soldiers) went away and returned a few minutes later in large numbers. The soldiers ran amok, beating up any police officer they could find. It was scary. I saw a woman bleeding after she fell in the skirmishes,” a street vendor told African Independent.
This comes amid fears that President Robert Mugabe’s unresolved succession question is posing grave implications for national security.
Last weekend, Mugabe, at 93 the world’s oldest president, issued a stern warning to the military to stop meddling in politics. Some senior commanders in Zimbabwe’s influential military are backing Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa to succeed the veteran leader, pitting them against a Zanu-PF faction which has coalesced around Mugabe’s wife Grace, which is rooting for Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi to take over. Top police commanders are associated with Grace’s faction.
An undisclosed number of civilians were injured in the crossfire while street vendors lost their wares in the skirmishes.
Sekai Holland, a former Minister of National Healing who witnessed the fierce clashes between soldiers and police, said she was shocked by the violence.
Holland, who was in Cabinet from 2009 to 2013, said she was with four colleagues in central Harare when the violence erupted.
“We were in the city, parked on Julius Nyerere Avenue, when crowds of people came running past us… suddenly I saw smart uniformed soldiers running after crowds. They (people in the streets) saw one soldier rush past, holding a rod, beating up a uniformed police officer who was running away at full speed,” said Holland.
A taxi driver told online news portal NewZimbabwe that the violence was frightening. “This is not good. The fights are frightening,” said the cabbie.
Linda Masarira, a pro-democracy activist who announced last week she is running for a parliamentary seat in next year’s general election, said the public was somewhat amused to see the pro-Zanu-PF police being attacked by soldiers.
Contacted for comment, police spokesperson chief superintendent Paul Nyathi said he could only issue a detailed statement later on Wednesday.