Businesses including banks were forced to close shop after police and soldiers drove people out of Bulawayo’s central business district in an early morning operation on Tuesday.
Police checkpoints on roads leading into the city centre blocked most vehicles, ordering drivers to turn back. Only health workers and security forces were being let through, witnesses said.
Many workers were forced to return home.
Zimbabwe has eased coronavirus lockdown regulations, and all businesses have been allowed to re-open, including informal markets.
The operation caught many by surprise, and there was no immediate explanation from the government.
A video emerged of police officers dragging a handcuffed man in the courtyard of a petrol station. Several people were also arrested, ostensibly because they were too slow to comply with the order to return home.
At sunrise, it is normal to find long queues having formed outside Bulawayo’s banks and money transfer agencies. These were the first people targeted by an early morning sweep of the town.
ZUPCO buses, which are enjoying a public transport monopoly, refused to carry any passengers other than nurses, doctors and members of the security services.
Traffic jams kilometres long were witnessed on roads leading into the city centre.
One witness said he saw a soldier tearing a letter presented by a motorist to prove that they are employed. Security services at the checkpoints sometimes ask for the letters as proof that one has reason to get into the CBD, as part of measures to limit non-essential movement.
Standard Chartered bank was forced to close its only branch in town. The bank sent a message to its customers saying it had closed its doors due to “circumstances beyond our control.”
By mid-day, the city centre was virtually deserted with most shops having closed.
Fadzayi Mahere, the spokesperson for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, accused the government of being “at war with its citizens.”
“The army has been deployed for some unknown cause onto the streets of Bulawayo and is ordering citizens to go home. The State is at war with its citizens. We need new leaders,” she wrote on Twitter.
We have reached out to government spokesman Nick Mangwana for a comment.