The sound of automatic gunfire reverberated through Harare on Wednesday as armoured military vehicles rolled through the Zimbabwean capital and soldiers fired on opposition activists protesting against alleged electoral fraud.
By the time daylight began to fade at least one man had been shot dead, recalling the dark days of former president Robert Mugabe’s era when elections and extreme regime violence went hand-in-hand.
It had been hoped that the first elections following his removal — after a brief army takeover led by former army chief Constantino Chiwenga — would turn the page for the country.
“There’s no need for Chiwenga to control the elections,” said a protester, wearing a red sports jacket and holding a sign proclaiming “We don’t want fake elections”.
But moments after he spoke to AFP, a man wearing a black jumper and jeans was shot in the stomach and lay in a pool of his own blood that seeped onto the dusty tarmac.
The noisy but peaceful protest descended into chaos after security forces opened fire, sprayed tear gas and unleashed water cannon.
Two men fled for cover in the shadow of two election billboards emblazoned with Mnangagwa’s face and pro-government slogans.
“You said you were better than Mugabe — you are the picture of Mugabe,” shouted one young male protester wearing a white T-shirt. “We need security for the people.”
Dozens of soldiers fanned out across central Harare as armoured personnel carriers with roof-mounted machine guns sped through the streets.
– ‘Ruling with an iron fist’ –
Some soldiers beat fleeing protesters with their assault rifles while at least one whipped a passerby with a belt.
Supporters of opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had taken to the streets to vent frustration over delays to announcing the results of the landmark presidential polls.
The opposition accuse President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his ruling ZANU-PF party of stalling so it can steal the election.
MDC supporters, which has proclaimed the party the winner of the presidential vote, were celebrating at their headquarters before they made their way to the head office of the election commission.
They were met by a cordon of heavily armed riot police who used high pressure water cannon to repel them.
The growing crowd lit fires and chanted “Chamisa”, referring to MDC leader and presidential hopeful Nelson Chamisa.
As the violence flared one injured man, whose grey T-shirt and blue jeans were speckled with blood, sheltered under a market stall.
By nightfall, a stream of security forces had locked down the city centre and normally bustling areas like the bus station were deserted.
“Deploying soldiers means they are ruling with an iron fist. We are now a military state,” said vegetable seller Mazvinetsa Muradzikwa, 24. “We have the police what’s the point on deploying soldiers?”