THE shock communiqué by war veterans denouncing President Robert Mugabe’s leadership on Thursday last week despite being endorsed by the same grouping in April this year reflects the turbulent love-hate relationship between the former liberation war fighters and the nonagenarian.
At an emotionally-charged meeting in Harare last week, the freedom fighters declared they had withdrawn their support for Mugabe, whom they accused of promoting factionalism to entrench his authoritarian rule and also abandoning the ideals of the liberation struggle. The war veterans also accused Mugabe of mismanaging the economy and urged him to quit saying an economic turnaround can only occur in his absence.
The communique was significant in that war veterans, through the Mgagao declaration of 1975, played a crucial role to propel Mugabe into power after endorsing him to take over the Zanu leadership, effectively shutting out the then incumbent Ndabaningi Sithole leadership.
Mugabe was thrust into leadership despite not being a soldier himself. He was also not known or trusted by the bulk of freedom fighters while Mozambican president Samora Machel, who was one of the main supporters of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, was also not keen on him leading the party.
In the book, A Lifetime of Struggle, the late former Zanu PF secretary-general Edgar Tekere, who travelled to Mozambique with Mugabe, portrayed the Zanu PF strongman as a reluctant leader who had no appetite for war. Tekere said Mugabe was the “commander-in-chief of the Zanla forces yet he didn’t even have a uniform”.
“Tongogara (Zanla commander Josiah Tongogara) and I decided that he must have a uniform and arranged for one to be made for him, but somehow this never happened. He was really a civilian bureaucrat. He would sit in his office, waiting to receive military briefings from me and never took the initiative himself unless pushed. He did not know how to salute,” reads the book.
Tekere effectively painted a picture of Mugabe as a coward and a timid leader who did not even want to take the Zanu leadership from Sithole when installed in jail. Tekere said Mugabe refused to wear military fatigues during visits to the battlefront — as he preferred normal or safari suits — and did not know how to fire a gun.
Distinguished war veteran, the late Wilfred Mhanda, in his book Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter, said Machel had opposed Mugabe’s leadership. He also said Mugabe had little knowledge of military etiquette.
Mhanda said Mugabe “breached some military etiquette that puzzled us. He called Rex Nhongo by his home name (Mutuswa). He also appeared to display ethnic tendencies by indirectly enquiring where particular senior commanders came from, even though it was part of the strict security protocol, upgraded to a disciplinary code, that made us stick to noms de guerre”.
Zimbabwe Democracy Institute director Pedzisai Ruhanya said the gulf between Mugabe and war veterans has never been narrowed, hence the clashes over the years.
“Mugabe is not a war veteran, but a nationalist without war credentials,” Ruhanya said. “War veterans were in the battlefront, while Mugabe led the guerrillas without going to the front. That has been the gulf since he took over the Zanu leadership. Zanu PF has managed to hold on to power through the coercive apparatus which include the security and the war veterans. Now that there is no longer elite cohesion Mugabe will find himself in an awkward position and this has a bearing on future elections.”
Even after being thrust into leadership, Mugabe often clashed with war-time leaders and war veterans, including former Zanu PF politburo member Rugare Gumbo and Dzino who rebelled against him in what is known as the Vashandi Rebellion of 1977.
Gumbo, in an interview on the eve of Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980, said the “dissidents” had been detained because they had differed with Mugabe on the “crucial issue” of national unity.
Mugabe also had a love-hate relationship with war veterans in the post-Independence Zimbabwe.
After a period of relative calm following the 1987 Unity Accord which was a preceded by a crackdown on “dissidents” soon after Independence leading to the massacre of about 20 000 unarmed civilians in Midlands and Matabeleland regions at the hands of security forces, Mugabe soon faced the wrath of war veterans who accused him of abandoning them.
Under the leadership of a Polish-trained medical doctor, the late Chenjerai Hunzvi, Mugabe was in 1997 forced to award hefty gratuities to war veterans. Prior to the award war veterans had booed Mugabe at the National Heroes Acre and also threatened to march to State House.
Relations eased after Mugabe bowed down to the war veterans’ demands resulting in the freedom fighters playing a crucial role in campaigning for Zanu PF ahead of the 2000 parliamentary elections. Hunzvi led war veterans in farm invasions, paving way for the fast-track land redistribution programme to redress gross ownership imbalances between whites and blacks.
The war veterans also played a crucial role in confronting a then united MDC through violence and intimidation.
Between 2000 and 2005 the war veterans were used as the primary enforcers in Mugabe’s land-grab, brutalising and killing white farmers, their families and their workers and at the same time against opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party in a fierce reign of terror.
They played a crucial role to ensure Zanu PF wins the 2002 and 2005 elections, before rescuing Mugabe when he faced internal opposition in 2007 from a faction led by the late retired General Solomon Mujuru which opposed his extended rule without elections.
Jabulani Sibanda, then the war veterans leader organised the million men march in solidarity with Mugabe ahead of the 2007 extraordinary congress, which endorsed Mugabe as Zanu PF candidate in the 2008 elections.
Ahead of the 2013 polls, Sibanda rallied support for Mugabe, spending close to four years mobilising people around the country.
Zanu PF controversially won the elections.
Sibanda’s fortunes, however, changed in 2014 after the dramatic entry of First Lady Grace Mugabe into mainstream politics where she pushed out then vice-president Joice Mujuru.
Sibanda, who was supportive of Mujuru, claimed there had been a “bedroom coup” as Grace was now in control of both party and government, leading to his ouster.
He was replaced by Christopher Mutsvangwa who, however, also did not last long as he clashed with Grace and by extension Mugabe.
In a bid to contain the freedom fighters, Mugabe met the war veterans in Harare in April, but ducked explosive internal Zanu PF succession issues and grievances they had raised. Tensions inevitably persisted leading to last week’s scathing war vets communique and Mugabe’s current backlash.