Members of Zimbabwe’s defeated opposition party appeared in court Saturday on violence charges, a day after President Emmerson Mnangagwa was declared winner of the historic first elections following the downfall of Robert Mugabe.
Mnangagwa, a former Mugabe ally, has called for unity after presidential rival Nelson Chamisa rejected the results, insisting he was the real winner of an election marred by a deadly crackdown on opposition supporters.
At least six people died after troops in the capital Harare opened fire on demonstrators Wednesday, sparking an international outcry and raising grim memories of post-election violence under Mugabe’s repressive rule.
Mnangagwa has accused Chamisa’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of fomenting the unrest, but said he would set up an independent commission to investigate the killings.
The 24 opposition members appearing in court were charged with “public violence” during the protests, accused of smashing windows at offices of the ruling ZANU-PF party and setting fire to vehicles.
They were remanded in custody until a bail hearing on Monday.
Defence lawyer Denford Halimani said the 16 men and eight women had been caught up in an “opportunistic dragnet” against the opposition.
Mnangagwa has insisted that Monday’s landmark election was “free, fair and credible”, hailing the vote as a fresh start as he pushes for an end to Zimbabwe’s international isolation.
International observers praised the peaceful conduct of the vote, though EU monitors said Mnangagwa benefited from an “un-level playing field” including heavy state media coverage.
Killed while selling tomatoes
Mnangagwa won 50.8 percent against Chamisa’s 44.3 percent, according to official results – just enough to avoid a presidential run-off.
Chamisa, a 40-year-old pastor and lawyer, has urged his supporters to refrain from violence as he prepares to challenge the results in court.
“We won but they declared the opposite. You voted but they cheated,” he said on Twitter.
In the village of Chinamhora, northeast of Harare, a crowd of 200 mourners gathered to bury 41-year-old fruit seller Ishmail Kumire, one of the victims of Wednesday’s crackdown.
Relatives said he supported ZANU-PF but was caught up in the violence and killed because he had stayed at the scene, trying to protect his wares.
“He supported the ruling party – but then it’s the same ruling party that killed him,” said his brother Steven Matope.
“He was just selling his tomatoes.”
Mnangagwa, 75, has said Chamisa is free to dispute the election results through the courts, though such a move appears to have little chance of changing the result.
A former right-hand man to Mugabe, Mnangagwa was chosen to lead ZANU-PF after the brief military intervention last November that ousted the autocrat after 37 years in power.
Mnangagwa was allegedly involved in violence and intimidation during the 2008 elections when the opposition pulled out of the run-off following the deaths of at least 200 supporters in attacks.
Rights groups have expressed concern that heavy-handed policing to prevent more opposition protests is a sign of how he intends to govern.
Amnesty International said more than 60 people had been “arbitrarily arrested” in a post-election clampdown on the opposition.
Former colonial power Britain said it remained “deeply concerned by the violence following the elections and the disproportionate response from the security forces”.
Seeking to lift Zimbabwe’s pariah status, Mnangagwa is making a push for badly needed foreign investment, pronouncing the country “open for business” on Friday.
Anthoni Van Nieuwkerk, an international relations professor at Wits University in Johannesburg, said Mnangagwa was well aware that his recovery plan required “goodwill and support” from the international community.
“If they roll out the soldiers – beyond what happened on Wednesday – throughout the country to suppress dissent, and if more people are killed, then this will spell no good news for this new incoming president,” he said.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has called on all Zimbabweans to accept the result, while the United States urged the opposition to show “graciousness in defeat”.