MANY probably thought they were witnessing a repentant President Robert Mugabe in 1999 when the seemingly remorseful leader described the 1980s Gukurahundi massacres which resulted in 20 000 civilians being killed by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces as “a moment of madness”.
Although the usually obstinate Mugabe fell short of apologising for the atrocities committed by the state security forces, the implication of his message was that the regrettable episode had occurred in the heat of the moment and would never be repeated.
However, last week’s ominous comments by the veteran leader labelling war veterans “dissidents” and warning that they too could be descended upon like dissidents in the 1980s suggested that far from the massacres being a tragedy which happened in the heat of the moment — done without thinking — it turns out in fact there might have been a method in the madness.
Mugabe’s remarks suggested the killings were planned and thus systematic, hence the campaign could be repeated albeit in a different context and circumstances.
When Mugabe came to power in 1980, his agenda clearly articulated in Zanu PF’s manifesto then, was to establish a socialist one-party state. So anyone who stood in the way had to be removed. PF Zapu and its leader Joshua Nkomo stood in Mugabe’s way and they had to be removed by force and violence, hence Gukurahundi even if it had Cold War dimensions and ethnic undertones.
Zanu PF had won 57 seats in 1980. Zapu had 20 and UANC three. In addition to that there were the 20 seats reserved for whites which were won by the Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe (CAZ) led by the former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith. CAZ won 15 reserved seats in the 1985 elections while five were won by independent candidates.
Thus, it was the Zapu and CAZ presence in parliament after the 1980 which presented a combined and formidable opposition which meant the one-party state could not be achieved while they existed. Therefore Gukurahundi was employed to deal with Zapu, while CAZ was dealt with by a constitutional amendment which abolished the reserved seats in 1987.
As it was with Nkomo, so has it been with anybody who has dared challenge Mugabe’s hegemony — including Edgar Tekere, Morgan Tsvangirai and more recently former vice-president Joice Mujuru. Ndabaningi Sithole was also a victim of Mugabe’s political crackdown.
The war veterans, who have stood firmly in support of Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s presidential ambitions while threatening to scuttle Mugabe’s succession plans in the process, have also become an enemy.
The ex-combatants would best heed Mugabe’s warning. After all they were given a foretaste of his wrath when they were dispersed by teargas and water cannons in March during their abortive demonstration against First Lady Grace Mugabe.
Grace, who enjoys the support of her husband, is fronting the G40 faction which has been trying to derail Mnangagwa’s presidential ambitions.
The war veterans have riled Mugabe who has relied on them in the past to shore up his faltering rule.
But just like the proverbial hyena which first accuses its children of smelling like goats as a prelude to eating them, he warned them last week that talking about who should succeed him is “dissident behaviour (and) dissident activities cannot be allowed.”
“The dissidents tried it, they were war veterans and you know what happened …,” Mugabe said.
“You want to shed blood? That cannot be allowed and steps have to be taken.”
According to Bulawayo-based political commentator Dumisani Nkomo, a relative of Joshua Nkomo, “such use of hate language which is steeped in a history of genocide is worrying.”
He said Mugabe’s remarks evoke memories of Gukurahundi where Mugabe began by describing Zapu and Matabeleland as a hotbed of “dissidents” before unleashing violence.
With this speech, Mugabe showed that in as much as he may seek to portray himself differently; he will always be a creature of habit travelling down the well-beaten path of threats and violence to achieve his political objectives.
Despite the talk of reconciliation and turning swords into ploughshares in his speech at independence in 1980, Mugabe wasted little time in unleashing the Fifth Brigade unit under the pretext of eliminating dissidents.
But as stated by Nkomo, the dissidents who numbered less than 120 were Zipra army deserters who ran away from persecution before they were used as an excuse to launch a campaign to destroy Zapu and its supporters in order to achieve the one-party state that Mugabe had always wanted in true fashion of Marxist dictators of the time.
“It (the Gukurahundi campaign) maybe about establishing a one-party state,” said Nkomo in an interview in London where he had fled to after surviving an assassination plot although some people were killed at his Pelandaba house in Bulawayo.
“If Mugabe wants the one-party state the best thing is to organise to win the hearts of the people and show what he can do for them and not to shoot them into submission.”
Gukurahundi only ended when Zapu agreed to be swallowed by Zanu.
Former Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Willard Chiwewe who took minutes during the Unity Accord negotiations from 1985 to 1987 stated that Mugabe only agreed to negotiations on the basis that “the leadership of the united party was non-negotiable in that Robert Mugabe would be the unchallenged leader and unity would have to be achieved under the name Zanu”.
Nkomo’s surrender thus allowed Mugabe to realise his dream of a de facto one-party state which was however short-lived when serious opposition quickly re-emerged in the form of Tekere who launched his Zimbabwe Unity Movement (Zum) party in 1989.
Mugabe resorted to violence to contain Tekere with the most brutal reminder of what he was capable of doing being the 1990 shooting of Patrick Kombayi, a senior Zum official.
The opposition MDC has also been subjected to systematic violence since its formation in 1999.
Mugabe has never tolerated the party claiming the MDC was a Western surrogate despite incontrovertible evidence that the party emerged out of local material social and economic conditions.
The hatred for any kind of challenge has been transferred to internal opposition as the war veterans have since realised. They have been shown that they will not be immune to reprisals should they continue trying to remove Mugabe and put their candidate Mnangagwa.