BUSINESS came to a standstill in Bulawayo yesterday after police supported by the army drove people out of the city centre in an early morning operation believed to be clearing the way for the MDC faction led by Thokozani Khupe to wrest the opposition provincial offices from their rival camp led by Nelson Chamisa.
Residents woke up to heavily militarised roadblocks that only allowed soldiers, police, medical staff and other government workers to get into the CBD, with previously accepted exemption letters allowing people to enter the CBD being rejected. Even Zupco buses, currently enjoying a public transport monopoly, were forced to offload passengers at the roadblocks.
The clampdown follows a similar one carried out on June 5 when members of the army and armed police seized control of the MDC Alliance building in Harare and handed it over to Khupe’s faction. Armed police have been keeping vigil outside the Morgan Richard Tsvangirai House round the clock since then.
Sources said the clampdown was to preempt possible protests by MDC Alliance members following a notice by the Khupe faction that it would seize the party offices in Bulawayo yesterday.
MDC Alliance provincial spokesperson Swithern Chirowodza said: “We have heard that Khupe and her team would attempt to take over our offices. There will be an attempt at night,” he said.
Party national spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere 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.
Vehicles along Luveve Road, Khami Road, Plumtree Road and other roads leading to the city were forced to form very long queues before they could reach the checkpoints, where most of them were forced to make a U-turn back home.
Police details manning the roadblocks said there was a directive to bar people from entering the CBD save for the uniformed forces and nurses.
“If you are not a nurse, police, prison officer, soldier go back home. This is a directive that we have been given by our superiors,” a police officer manning a roadblock in Mpopoma, said.
A distraught motorist said: “When I produced my clearance letter, they just tore and burnt it, I regret having produced it because it appears this is no longer an issue of COVID-19, because as much as we know, the government has since relaxed the conditions to allow the economy to function. I wonder why they are doing this.”
Banks were forced to close and workers sent back home. The Standard Chartered bank had to send a message to its customers advising that it had been forced to close down due to “circumstances beyond its control.”
The CBD was almost deserted by mid-day, with most shops closed. Some security details were forcing shops and supermarkets to close while also driving away people from the city centre.
Contacted for comment, Bulawayo provincial police spokesperson Inspector Abednico Ncube said the operation was only meant to remind residents that the nation was still under lockdown and only essential service workers were allowed access to the CBD.
“It is a lie that people with work permits are not allowed into town,” he said.
“Only those without are turned back. We are still on lockdown. When we put up roadblocks or remove them you complain, that is the problem with you people, you do not know what you want.”
He added: “Can you at least tell us as police what you want us to do because the last time I spoke to the media you were asking me why there was no roadblock? But now that we put them back on the road, you complain.”
Zimbabwe Defence Forces spokesperson Colonel Overson Mugwisi declined to comment saying it was a police operation.
“My dear, this is not a military operation, I am sure you know that it is a police operation, hence I would advise you to seek your comment from the police force,” Mugwisi said.
The clampdown comes after Mnangagwa relaxed lockdown restrictions, resulting in several businesses opening for the first time since March 30. Mnangagwa has come under fire for announcing an indefinite lockdown period with critics accusing him of hiding under the cover of COVID-19 to clamp down on dissent and close democratic space.
Last week, Home Affairs minister Kazembe Kazembe implicated some opposition parties, churches, Western embassies and civic organisations in a plot to unseat Mnangagwa.
Meanwhile, MDC Alliance MPs yesterday claimed they were harassed by the police on Monday as they tried to travel to attend Parliamentary Portfolio Committee meetings on a day which had been declared a national day of prayer and fasting by Mnangagwa.
The issue was raised a matter of privilege by Joyce Makonya (MDC Alliance PR MP now self-declared MDC T) who said “yesterday’s event of fasting and prayer for the country and the coronavirus was characterised by problems.
She said it was not declared a public holiday and people were not told whether they were supposed to fast at home or at any other place.