Riot police enter the grounds of Bronte Hotel, where a press conference by MDC-Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa was to take place. Picture: AP
This is no way to end an election that promised to bring a bright new post-coup and post-Robert Mugabe dawn to a blighted Zimbabwe - 50.8% for Zanu-PF’s Emmerson Mnangagwa to 44.3% for the contending Movement for Democratic Change-Alliance’s (MDC-Alliance) Nelson Chamisa.

After a drawn out count for the last constituency, a suspect tally for the supreme ruler. As for the Zanu-PF MPs’ sweeps across the rural areas resulting in a more than two-thirds majority in the lower house of assembly (155 to 53), fears triggered by memories of the violent 2008 run-off remain real.

Mnangagwa has been making gestures to Chamisa for “unity” or to play a crucial role in Zimbabwe’s present and unfolding future.

He seemed furious when the police converged on journalists attending Chamisa’s presser at the subtly luxurious Bronte Hotel. The police apologised on Twitter very quickly.

Yet dozens or more MDC-Alliance supporters were running for their lives, or hiding in safe houses. This, just days after soldiers - not police - shot and killed at least six protesters and innocent bystanders. Some were shot in the back. What start is this for a regime promising Lazarus-like revival for the ruling party and its friends across the world - not to mention ordinary Zimbabweans?

Yet there was an alternative: if Mnangagwa had the power, he could call off the attack dogs and let the courts decide the merits, or not, of Chamisa’s case that the poll was rigged.

This might not result in a peaceful resolution, given rumblings that a coup is in the making led by Vice-President and (unconstitutionally) Minister of Defence, Constantino Chiwenga.

But it would be better than allowing the soldiers out onto the streets in force. And it just could be that this is the tack. The MDC-Alliance’s lawyers will present their case today.

Mnangagwa is facing a sharp fork in the road. One hopes he takes the right one. The crackdown started on August 2. As the election results were trickling in, drunken soldiers beat up equally inebriated MDC-Alliance supporters in the “high density suburbs” (poverty-riddled townships or locations) across Harare, where the opposition party did well.

So much for the hypothesis that the poor soldiers would support their equally suffering brothers and sisters with the long-struggling opposition, poised to take the chalice only a few months after Morgan Tsvangirai’s death. The crackdown continued the next day. An MDC-Alliance candidate in Chegutu challenged his loss, won on the recount and proceeded to run away from rabid soldiers. Many more were chased in Harare’s townships, Marondera, and Manicaland.

The Financial Times reported more than 60 arrests, pointing to Chiwenga as the leader of the shakedown. It hinted at a coup - no surprise to many Zimbabweans.Chiwenga has been the elephant in the room for a long time. Many Zimbabweans say Mnangagwa lives in fear of him. Lower ranking members of Zanu-PF in propaganda and intelligence don’t dare challenge this mercurial man with a history of suicide attempts, and more.

Promoted to armed forces head by Mugabe well beyond his seniority and capability, but kept to one-year contracts to ensure his fealty, he waited until Grace Mugabe pushed her doddering husband into firing his long-time ally Mnangagwa - who was then vice-president - early last November.

Chiwenga returned from a China trip and helped Mnangagwa in what the American Jesuit magazine called the unexpected, but peaceful, transition away from the nonagenarian ruler.

Chiwenga has kicked out a good number of Central Intelligence Organisation operatives, suspected of loyalty to the “Generation-40” faction, which lost out with the coup.

He’s been awaiting his due - the presidency - ever since, and he might be in a hurry. A demotion could ensue if Mnangagwa takes the royal road to respectability via a pleasant deal with the MDC-Alliance, whom the recalcitrant “war vets” consider a cabal of imperialist puppets.

It’s surprising that cheerleaders for the “military assisted transition”, with a lot riding on peace and goodwill after the election, seemed blissfully unaware of the power behind the tarnished throne.

South African military intelligence is supposed to be well-connected with its counterparts to the north, and should not be prone to think like the British.The defenders of a diminishing empire are more likely to think like Lord Christopher Soames, the temporary governor of Rhodesia as Zimbabwe was on the cusp. His comments as Mugabe came to power on the wave of a violent election in 1980 included that he wasn’t surprised at the bloodshed.

This isn’t Puddleton-on-the-Marsh. Africans think nothing of sticking poles up each others’ whatnot and doing filthy things. British officials and their global compatriots, presumably don’t think like that anymore. But even if they don’t, they should have known that coups are prone to eat their own children.There could be another road to take. There is still time for Mnangagwa to change tack. The MDC-Alliance’s contention that the election was cooked will be tested in the courts.

This, say Zimbabweans on the run, is what the soldiers are after: they are chasing copies of the V11 forms.

These are the results of every polling station posted after the local count: they can be captured by anyone on site but are also transported to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission headquarters for the final count.

The V11s might be Chamisa’s ace: he claims to possess a tally that will invalidate Mnangagwa’s slim victory.

If the presidential praetorians were sure their man won, why didn’t they allow Chamisa to present the papers to the constitutional court - stacked with Zanu-PF judges as it is?

In any case the presidential inauguration should be postponed.

Mnangagwa is used to waiting for the right moment. He will have to move faster against Chiwenga than he did against Mugabe. If he’s too slow there could be a real coup, soldiers running rampant again. Or an electoral rerun. The choice might be Mnangagwa’s. Or it could be Chiwenga’s.

Moore is Professor of Development Studies and Visiting Researcher, Institute of Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg.