Harare - In one of the most unforgettable scenes witnessed in Zimbabwe this past week, an opposition protester struck the pose of a triumphant wrestler, holding aloft a street sign emblazoned “Robert Mugabe Rd”.
“We’ve captured Robert Mugabe,” shrieked the protester, as if displaying a heavyweight title belt.
Stone-throwing youths had just overpowered Harare’s much-feared riot police and barricaded roads leading to the city centre, declaring a liberated zone. When police used tear gas, the youths quickly picked up the canisters and threw them back, sending the jittery officers scampering for cover.
The victory pose was an iconic moment, sealing President Robert Mugabe's worst humiliation since losing an election to the opposition in 2008. The protesters were overjoyed with their war trophy and repeatedly proclaimed that, in a sense, they had “captured Robert Mugabe”.
Barely 1km from the protesting youths, the real Mugabe was hosting Sierra Leone Vice-President Victor Bockarie Foh and trying his level best to convince the world that all is well in the troubled country.
The foreign dignitary had come to officially open the Harare Agricultural Show, but tellingly the public terraces were empty.
Smarting from his humiliation, Mugabe issued a stern warning to the opposition, saying the “Arab Spring” would never be replicated in Zimbabwe.
“They are thinking that what happened in the Arab Spring is going to happen in this country. That is not going to happen here,” said the 92-year-old leader.
He was speaking after police had fired tear gas and beat up opposition protesters demanding electoral reforms ahead of the 2018 national elections.
Dozens of policemen were deployed to seal off the starting point of the planned protest. Even after a high court judge authorised the protest, police continued to disperse the opposition members violently. As footage of shocking violence went viral, the UN implored the Zimbabwean government to uphold constitutional rights to freedom of association and assembly.
Angered by the clampdown, the protesters threw stones at the police and set tyres ablaze.
It was during the mayhem that opposition youths brought down the signpost of a street named after Mugabe.
“What politics is that when you burn tyres? We want peace in the country,” fumed Mugabe, accusing foreign governments of fomenting the unrest.
Friday’s skirmishes were an escalation from Wednesday's violence when police clashed with opposition youths protesting police brutality. The Harare city centre turned into a war zone after police used tear gas and water cannons on more than 200 protesters marching to hand a petition to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the police.
Unlike previous clashes, where protesters have run for cover once tear gas is deployed, this time the youths fought back, taking the police by surprise. They accused police of sparking the violence by attacking peaceful marchers.
As the central business district turned into a war zone, the emboldened protesters threw stones and tear gas canisters back at the police. In the escalating skirmishes, the youths burnt two vans belonging to the police and the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.
A supermarket owned by Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko was ransacked, with groceries and $12 000 (R172 000) looted.
An electronic goods shop was looted in the widening mayhem, with youths sprinting off with laptops and TV sets.
Overpowered by the protesters, the police began randomly beating up passers-by and journalists in the vicinity.
A middle-aged man carrying a Bible was thrashed by truncheon-wielding officers, despite pleas of innocence. In a spine-chilling incident, police lobbed a tear gas canister into a commuter minibus full of passengers.
The dazed driver panicked and sped off, with terrified passengers jumping out of the moving minibus through windows.
More than 100 suspected protesters have been arrested on charges of public violence. The opposition MDC-T accused the government of planting “agents provocateurs” among protesters.
Writing in the state-controlled Press on Saturday, a shadowy columnist believed to be Mugabe’s spokesman, George Charamba, declared war on opposition protesters, warning them the Zanu-PF government would pay scant regard to international opinion.
Leaders of the main opposition, Joice Mujuru of Zimbabwe People First and Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, condemned the police brutality. The two, part of 18 political parties that are demanding electoral reforms, are a step closer to forming a “grand coalition” for 2018. Tsvangirai declared the government was in its “sunset hour”. Mugabe, 92, has led Zimbabwe since independence.