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War vets: Public sympathy runs dry

ALL over the world nations that endure violent struggles of liberation remember their heroes with songs, folklore and writings that constitute collective memory.

Report by Herbert Moyo

George Washington is revered as a hero of the 1776 war that resulted in American independence from Britain, as is Napoleon Bonaparte whose military conquests of other European states spanning a 20-year period from 1795 to 1815 brought glory to France.

In Zimbabwe, the exploits of the likes of Mbuya Nehanda and Mzilikazi are recounted orally and in print and electronic media, as are those of heroes from the 1970s liberation war who include Herbert Chitepo, Josiah Tongogara, Joshua Nkomo and President Robert Mugabe.

According to Wilfred Mhanda, who commanded the Zimbabwe People’s Army (Zipa) — an abortive attempt to unite the military wings of Zapu and Zanu during the liberation struggle — a country can express its appreciation of its war veterans “in material and other forms of genuine appreciation”.

Zimbabwe’s war veterans have been getting just that. Last month Zimbabwe Defence Forces chief General Constantine Chiwenga is reported to have told war veterans that Mugabe had promised them US$2 000 each in monthly payments for nine months for their role in the liberation war.

While they helped liberate the country — as did many other ordinary people who remain unsung and deserve a form of assistance from the state — war vets, who arm-twisted Mugabe into paying them unbudgeted for gratuities in 1997 precipitating an economic decline which Zimbabwe is still to recover from, are unlikely to win many sympathisers with their insatiable demands.

If anything, Chiwenga’s alleged utterances will aggravate the widespread contempt for the ex-combatants whose association with Zanu PF’s brutal and violent attempts to cling to power since 2000 have turned the once thriving economy into a basket case while consigning the country to international pariah status.

For a long time after Independence in 1980, the Zanu PF government paid lip service to war vets’ needs, paying them pittances.

“The sums (Z$185 per month over 24 months soon after Independence) were far short of what was required to adequately assist former combatants to ease themselves back into the capitalist economy inherited from Rhodesia,” wrote Zimbabwean scholars  Gerald Mazarire and Martin Rupiya, in their assessment of the demobilisation packages given to war vets soon after Independence.

Remembering the extreme hardships they had endured during the liberation war, the former fighters were driven to form the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWA) in 1990 with Justice Charles Hungwe as the founding chairperson.

In 1997, the leadership passed on to the late Chenjerai Hunzvi, a process that also marked its transformation into a militant outfit.

Riding on a wave of popular sympathy, Hunzvi and his troops danced and marched to State House, eventually arm-twisting Mugabe into paying them a once-off Z$50 000 per person in 1997, education and medical benefits in addition to a monthly government pension.

From that point on, Mugabe, now battling an increasingly restless civil society, cunningly turned this humiliation to his party’s benefit. With the ZNLWA torn apart by infighting, Mugabe took full advantage by persuading the embattled Hunzvi faction to go to bed with Zanu PF.

Little did the nation know that Zanu PF had created Zimbabwe’s own version of Frankenstein’s monster and that “trade off” between an embattled government facing civil unrest due to economic hardships and a war vets faction facing allegations of corruption, created the unholy alliance that set Zimbabwe firmly down the road of political and social confrontation.

Human rights abuses on perceived Zanu PF opponents became rampant during election campaigns from 2000, including murder, rape, torture and internal displacement as the war vets ran the show.

Matters worsened after the defeat of Zanu PF’s constitutional review proposals in February 2000 and the MDC gained 57 seats out of a possible 120 in the June 2000 elections.

Already involved in violent farm invasions, the ubiquitous ex-fighters extended their reach to the resolution of labour disputes after forming the Joseph Chinotimba-led Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions in an attempt to counter the influence of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which had broken ranks with Zanu PF and spearheaded the formation of the MDC.

Chinotimba even appeared as a guest on state radio offering his mobile phone number to anyone who had a labour grievance and reached his zenith when Mugabe introduced him to the then visiting Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo at Harare airport.

In 2007, war vets’ leader Jabulani Sibanda organised the so-called “Million Men March” aimed at mobilising support for Mugabe in the 2008 elections. He followed this up with his infamous visits to the country’s provinces which continue to this day, leaving a trail of destruction and fear.

In 2010, war vets disrupted Copac’s first all-stakeholders’ conference held in Harare as part of the constitution-making exercise, sending MPs and officials from other political parties scurrying for cover in the ensuing violence, while police officers stood akimbo.

Finance minister Tendai Biti has received numerous unwelcome visits by the rowdy war vets demanding hefty pay-outs from government and accusing him of all sorts of economic and social crimes.

“These attacks are political,” said Biti as he castigated the police for failing to provide security for hundreds of civil servants who were locked inside their offices by war vets last year.

Political analyst Godwin Phiri said Zimbabweans should be worried about the manner in which the war vets have shown they are mercenaries who can easily be bought.

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