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War veterans on the war path in Zimbabwe

There is a Shona proverb about how searing the hatred can be between people who used to love each other. You could say this about the relationship between the former guerrillas of the Rhodesian Bush War and their patron, Robert Mugabe, says Kudzayi Zvinavashe.

Douglas Mahiya, a leader in the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, has been released on US$300 bail after the state accused him of treason. Fellow leaders Victor Matemadanda and Francis Nhando in the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association were also arrested while at the Harare magistrate’s court to watch the judicial proceedings.

The relationship between Mugabe and the war veterans has deteriorated so much that treason charges have been laid against some of them. This all stems from a communiqué that the war veterans issued.

Zimbabwe War Veterans Secretary General Victor Matemadanda reacts as he is escorted by Zimbabwean Policemen to a court hearing on August 1, 2016 in Harare after being arrested. Photo: ANP/AFP Wilfred Kajese
Zimbabwe War Veterans Secretary General Victor Matemadanda reacts as he is escorted by Zimbabwean Policemen to a court hearing on August 1, 2016 in Harare after being arrested. Photo: ANP/AFP Wilfred Kajese

Part of the communiqué reads, ‘We note, with concern, shock and dismay, the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the President and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle, in utter disregard of the Constitution.’

A look back at a long-term relationship

The Zanu-PF-run government has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the war veterans since about 2000, but that changed in February, when the police interrupted an indaba called by the war vets. So volatile was the confrontation that tear gas and pressurised water was used to disperse them. This showdown caused great mirth for ordinary citizens, given that the war vets have killed, maimed and abused Zimbabweans in an effort to maintain Zanu-PF’s long stay in power. In fact, the war veterans have been crucial to Zanu-PF’s electoral victories in the past.

Factional infighting in Zanu-PF

The controversial communiqué was released after a day of deliberations by the leadership of the association, drawn from around the country, who met in a bid to map a way forward. Political analysts say the crackdown on war veterans is influenced by their involvement in the factional wars that have rocked Zanu-PF.

President Robert Mugabe remains defiant in the face of public dissent.
President Robert Mugabe remains defiant in the face of public dissent.

One faction is led by Mnangagwa and is known as ‘Team Lacoste’, after his involvement in the Crocodile Gang, a Zanu sabotage unit that was active in the war against minority rule. (Mnangagwa’s nickname is ‘Ngwena’, which is Shona for crocodile). Another faction, called Generation 40 (G40), is fronted by Grace Mugabe. The factional battles have intensified as the different sides prepare their candidate to take over when Mugabe eventually leaves office. Of course, for Mugabe, who wants to rule even from beyond the grave, talk of succession is regarded as treason.

At a previous gathering, war veterans agreed that it was necessary to discuss Mugabe’s exit. At the indaba, one war veteran said, “No company would give a 92-year-old a loan.”

As arrests and reprisals against war veterans are ratcheted up, it is understandable that Mahiya was reluctant to talk to strangers. However, he agreed to talk to me.

The process leading up to the meeting with Mahiya could have been lifted from a James Bond movie. When I called him to request an interview, he gave me a specific time to call the following day. When I called again the next day at the given time, he gave me a location. When I arrived at the agreed place, he was not there. Instead I was told to drive across town. Even after all this caution and intrigue, Mahiya and his colleagues still received me with paranoia.

The dangers of speaking out

Their paranoia is understandable. Speaking out against Mugabe is not for the faint-hearted. Itai Dzamara, an activist-cum-journalist who publicly called for Mugabe to step down from power, was abducted in March 2016 by unknown men and has never been seen again. Evan Mawarire, the founder of the movement known as #ThisFlag, has been threatened by Mugabe. He has said that he does not feel safe in Zimbabwe and is now in South Africa, where he is speaking on various public platforms.

Zimbabwean Pastor Evan Mawarire addresses students during a lecture at Wits University in Johannesburg, on July 28, 2016. Photo: ANP/ AFP Mujahid Safodien
Zimbabwean Pastor Evan Mawarire addresses students during a lecture at Wits University in Johannesburg, on July 28, 2016. Photo: ANP/ AFP Mujahid Safodien

Mahiya refused to dwell on the communiqué, which is currently under investigation, but spoke about the position of the war veterans and the liberation struggle, among other issues. Mahiya has justified the role of the war veteran in politics, saying, “We are political soldiers; what we have always done is to continue trying to explain the revolutionary principles of our party. We – and only we – have the capacity to teach the people the revolutionary principles and interpret them accordingly.”

The role of the war veterans in Zimbabwe

When quizzed on the role of the war vets in the party and in Zimbabwean politics, Mahiya said, “I know the world thinks the war veterans were responsible for all the negative issues that were reported about us, but that is a misconception. We are not a violent people at all. We are a people’s force that liberated this country and the methodology that was used is that of fish and water.” This is a reference to Mao Tse Tung’s statement that the guerrilla ‘must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea’. “People are very important to us [and] the cases of violence recorded around elections are carried out by people who are not comrades but want to be seen as one…” said Mahiya.

The veterans’ grievances

One of the war veterans’ major grievances is, of course, their welfare. At the indaba, Mahiya said not much attention had ever been paid to what would happen to the veterans when they returned from the war. Very few opportunities were created for war veterans, he believes. However, there is an argument to be made for the possibility that there is no other group of people in Zimbabwe whose welfare has concerned the government in the same way: from the demobilisation funds availed by the British government to ex-guerrillas in the 1980s; the Zimbabwe War Victims’ Compensation Fund (looted by the Zanu-PF elite) and the lump sums they received in 1998 to the life-time pensions and farms they got from the land acquisition programme.

During the war, Mahiya was a detachment commander. After the war, in 1980, he joined the Zanu-PF’s Commissariat Department. Two years later he worked in government, for the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture.

Like him, many war vets were employed by the government but Mahiya said this changed when ‘all of those war veterans employed were forcibly retrenched by the public service’ under the pretext of creating a more efficient civil service.

He continued: “We became politically conscious before holding the gun and, as political soldiers, we need a home. That home is Zanu-PF.I It hurts the war vets to be told that they have no place in Zanu-PF. The constitution of the party says the war vets are the bedrock of the party. How are we a bedrock when we have no power to vote in important decision-making processes of the party and the country? What kind of bedrock does not benefit from the politics of the day?”

War vets: speaking truth to power or looking after their own selfish interests?

While speaking truth to power is commendable, some critics have been of the view that these gestures by the war veterans are selfish moves because their livelihoods are under attack. What is certain, however, is that we have not seen the last of these ‘revolutionary’ skirmishes. The next few months are going to be interesting as this relationship goes through tectonic shifts that could play a role in repositioning the political status quo in Zimbabwe.

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