Deadly street protests which brought Zimbabwe to a standstill this week have added impetus to calls by opposition parties and civil society organisations for President Emmerson Mnangagwa to agree to dialogue, leading to a negotiated political settlement which could save the country from total collapse, the Zimbabwe Independent can report.
This comes as organisers of the demonstrations gave Mnangagwa a 30-day ultimatum, by which he should have drafted a framework for negotiations, or face a "tsunami" of more mass protests.
The groups, which organised the total business shutdown, vowed to continue with sustained protests despite the government's heavy-handed approach in crushing dissent.
They are demanding national dialogue that would lead to the setting up of a transitional authority, which is inclusive, to run the country and realign the constitution in preparation for an election in six months to a year.
The push for dialogue is coming at a time the security sector is divided, with some disgruntled members of the security services, particularly those in the lower ranks in the military and police, supporting the protests privately.
Mnangagwa has a formidable task to appease members of the security forces, who like most Zimbabweans are bearing the brunt of the economic hardships, and have also not been spared the austerity measures introduced by government in recent weeks, including the 2% tax on electronic transactions and 150% fuel price hike.
Mnangagwa, whose legitimacy has been challenged ever since he won last year's presidential election by a wafer-thin 50,6% margin, is battling to set Zimbabwe's creaking economy on the recovery path.
While the Zanu PF first secretary has previously said he does not talk to losers, the ruling party's spokesperson, Simon Khaya Moyo, in an interview with the Independent, did not rule out the prospects for inclusive dialogue.
Moyo said Zanu PF could not rule out the possibility of talks with the opposition if a formal request for dialogue was put on the table.
"We want those people with their proposals to come and approach us if they want dialogue. I cannot respond to a proposal that we have not received because I don't want to commit to anything. You do not invite the head of state through the media; there are channels to do that," he said.
But as calls for dialogue between Mnangagwa and his political opponents gained momentum, contradictions emerged within the security establishment, with both the army and police denying responsibility for the death of at least 10 people during the three-day business shutdown, triggered by Mnangagwa's recent decision to increase fuel prices.
Although the government has blamed civil society for orchestrating the strike, pro-democracy groups have hit back at Mnangagwa, saying only genuine dialogue, leading to a power-sharing agreement, would extricate the country from a multi-faceted crisis.
Pressure group #Tajamuka frontman Promise Mkwananzi -- widely identified as one of the principal architects of the protests -- said the country needed an urgent, all-inclusive process which will usher in a transitional mechanism.
The process -- to precede a general election -- should be spearheaded by the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the African Union (AU), Mkwananzi said.
"We are putting the government on a month's notice to address the issues we have raised or else they will face more anger from the people. This process should be underwritten by Sadc and the AU community. The priority of the process should be on implementation of the constitution and revival of the economy," Mkwananzi said, as he distanced his grouping from messages circulating on social media suggesting that more protests will be held next week.
"After that, then we can have fresh elections because the reason why we are in this economic mess is because of flawed elections, which resulted in a legitimacy crisis for the current government," he said.
Although Zanu PF has professed ignorance over ongoing backroom talks with the opposition, the Independent exclusively reported late last year that ex-Kenyan chief justice Willy Mutunga has been pushing to broker a political deal between Mnangagwa and Chamisa behind closed doors.
As reported by the Independent, Mutunga quietly flew into the country in December on a quest to negotiate a political transition in Zimbabwe, although details of the meetings remain sketchy.
Political analysts believe dialogue, modelled around the 2008-2009 global political agreement which ushered in a Government of National Unity, was the only way to extricate the country from the current quagmire.
MDC spokesperson Jacob Mafume said this week's protests had exposed Mnangagwa's government. He said the opposition is still open to dialogue.
"The economy and the people have passed a vote of no confidence on Mnangagwa and his government because they got into power illegitimately and there is an illegitimacy crisis that has not been solved. In terms of dialogue, we have said it before that we are open for dialogue and we can be part of the dialogue process to restore Zimbabwe," Mafume said.
MDC leader Nelson Chamisa's spokesperson Nkululeko Sibanda called on Sadc and the AU to immediately intervene in the current political impasse. "Sadc must intervene and investigate these serious circumstances in which crimes against humanity were committed. Mnangagwa and Chiwenga are adversely affecting the image of the region and bring Sadc into disrepute over and over," Sibanda said.
Political analysts said only national dialogue can take the nation forward.
"The citizens' protests are a clear indicator that things are not working and political actors must swallow their pride and go to the dialogue table and chart a new inclusive way forward for Zimbabwe. The senseless violence by state security agents and military trivialises human life and does nothing to help resolve the economic challenges," political analyst Maxwell Saungweme said.
Another political analyst Piers Pigou weighed in, saying dialogue should not be exclusively between MDC and Zanu PF, but inclusive of other political actors. "He (Mnangagwa) needs to talk to a range of actors, including but not exclusively to the opposition. It seems unlikely an exclusive political arrangement will be adequate," Pigou said.
Rhodes University political science lecturer Mike Mavura dismissed the likelihood of political dialogue. "Mnangagwa is a politician not a statesman, so we can forget any idea of him reaching out to the opposition. A statesman sees the bigger picture and acts in the best interests of the country not just his own or his political party's narrow interests," he said.
"If ED (Mnangagwa) was a statesman, his narrow election victory would have morally and strategically compelled him to include in his government some ministers from the opposition so that those over two million opposition voters have a say and are in direct dialogue with him but, alas, the man is more goon than visionary," Mavura added.
The protests also exposed the contradictions and divisions within the country's security services as both police and army shifted blame and denied responsibility for the killings.
Although it was initially a police operation, the deployment of soldiers later on Monday appeared to suggest a breakdown in the chain of command synonymous with the violent crackdown which took place on August 1 last year.
Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) spokesperson Overson Mugwisi said the military was not involved in violently crushing the protests as it was exclusively a police operation.
"This is a police operation, talk to the police spokesperson. Did you see the army shooting people? I don't know about that," Mugwisi said.
But police spokesperson Charity Charamba also denied responsibility for the killings.
"People were shot? I don't know of anyone who was shot," she said before abruptly terminating the phone call.
Efforts to get a comment from Defence minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri were fruitless as she was said to be attending a series of meetings throughout the week.
Her deputy, Victor Matemadanda, washed his hands of the thorny issue.
"I am a deputy minister, I don't sit in cabinet. I don't have an idea who ordered the shooting. Don't make me meddle in issues that are beyond me. You know very well who gives orders," Matemadanda said.
Outspoken war veterans leader Chris Mutsvangwa came close to confirming the security sector divisions, telling journalists in Harare yesterday that there was a high possibility that some soldiers may have been involved in the protests.
"The way the demonstrations were organised, the nature of deployment and tactics implemented all point to a well-trained army in force which openly belonged to the opposition MDC Alliance which is trying to get to power through the backdoor. Of particular interest is their tactic to remove action from the CBD (Central Harare) and decentralise to ward level and use innocent civilians as human shields which is a military strategy," Mutsvangwa said, blaming the MDC for the violence.
"Veterans of the liberation struggle will ensure that we have strengthened our strongholds because the MDC has shown how violent they can be," he said.
In his trademark war-like language, Mutsvangwa also called on government to fire its workers involved in the protests.
"The opposition's political actions have been reflected in some of our civil servants. Government must therefore ensure that there is a complete overhaul of our civil service, especially removing those that seem to act in a manner that leaves government vulnerable to unnecessary embarrassment by enemies of the state," he said.