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War vets: Mugabe vs Mnangagwa

The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) is both a lobby group and a welfare organisation that represents the interests of former guerrilla fighters who waged the war against the minority government of Ian Douglas Smith in the 1970s. It is also a constituent organisation of the ruling Zanu PF party. Until recently, war veterans had been very close and indispensable allies of President Robert Mugabe.

Simukai Tinhu,Political analyst

War veterans secretary-general Victor Matemadanda speaking during a meeting held at Raylton Sports Club in Harare on July 21. Pic: Shepherd Tozvireva.
War veterans secretary-general Victor Matemadanda speaking during a meeting held at Raylton Sports Club in Harare on July 21. Pic: Shepherd Tozvireva.

But, on July 21, after having waged a largley silent war in the last two years, war veterans completed their insurrection against the nonagenarian when they issued a communiqué telling the nation that they had parted ways with Mugabe and that they would not support him as a Zanu PF candidate at the 2018 elections. In a political party and system where open criticism of Mugabe is a taboo, such open defiance was unprecedented.

In response, through the Ministry of War Veterans, last Saturday, Mugabe hit back. In a statement, Mugabe regarded the move as “misguided, treacherous and outright counterproductive”, adding that security agencies would hunt down and “bring all associated with it (communiqué) to justice.’ The president’s dismissal attitude of the war veterans’ concerns and his threatening response to the communiqué has been seen by the guerilla fighters as contempt and failure to appreciate the role that they have played in his political career.

Indeed, Mugabe largley owes his ascendancy to the Zanu PF party leadership to war veterans. During the war of independence, Mugabe was much of an an outsider and relatively a minor political figure in Zanu PF. However, all changed in October 1975, when war veterans who were then an army fighting Smith’s government, effectively launched a successful coup against the then Zanu PF party leadership and installed Mugabe as the new leader.

From that time onwards, Mugabe and his new allies went on to have a successful and mutually beneficial relationship, particularly in the post-Independence era. In return for aiding his rule, war veterans got almost everything they wanted; senior positions in the security, government and state bureaucracy and in parastatals.

Also, through their powerful military positions, they have been the biggest recipients of state patronage, including in the lucrative diamond industry. Recently, Mugabe even created a government ministry just to cater for their welfare, the War Veterans ministry.

The Zimbabwean strongman has been willing to meet any of the war veterans’ demands as long as they were confined to the marginal issues of material benefits through patronage. But, when the war veterans demanded that the president step down and pave way for their preferred candidate, to him this was a bridge too far.

Indeed, the latest clash has nothing to do with “unbridled corruption and downright mismanagement of the economy” as a result of Mugabe’s leadership, as the communiqué written by the war veterans spells out. Instead, the clash masks a tectonic power struggle that is going on behind the scenes between the nonagenarian and his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Feigning solidarity with his boss, the vice-president has been using the war veterans to undermine Mugabe.

Mnangagwa has a much longer and stronger relationship with the war veterans than that of Mugabe and the political grouping. This relationship dates back to the 1970s when he was a guerrilla fighter of the liberation war. Also, Mnangagwa as a government minister, he has used his influence as minister of security, defence and home affairs that are manned by war veterans as senior bureaucrats to cement his ties with this important political constituency. War veterans see him as a man who, more than anyone else in Zanu PF, can cater for their interests in the post-Mugabe era. They want Mnangagwa to take over immediately in order to prepare for the 2018 elections.
This explains the recent ratcheting up of pressure against Mugabe.

However, as an appointee of Mugabe, their preferred candidate, Mnangagwa cannot declare his ambitions and also be seen to be supportive of moves such as the communiqué. Instead, he has chosen to deploy a three-pronged strategy to remove Mugabe, which utilises the war veterans and bears very little of his footprint.

First, pretending no connections, Mnangagwa is using the war veterans association as a lobby group to undermine Mugabe’s authority. The war veterans group has not only publicly declared their support for Mnangagwa, but has also adopted a confrontational approach against Mugabe in an attempt to deliberately antagonise him. For example, they recently endorsed a civil society-led stay-away protest which the government regarded as illegal.

Second, Mnangagwa is using war veterans in the security establishment. War veterans occupy very important and powerful positions in the security sector. For example, heads of the police, army and intelligence are all war veterans and so are senior officers in the institutions they head. It is a public secret that the military in particular, which is staffed by war veterans, has been bidding for Mnangagwa to push aside Mugabe, prompting the president to issue warnings on two occassions against security sector’s meddling in succession matters.

Third, Mnangagwa himself, as one of the ultimate war veterans, has chosen a much more coded approach to challenge Mugabe; undermining his policies in government. For example, he has on a number of occassions contradicted Mugabe’s stance on the government’s flagship policies such as the indeginisation and land policies. He has also sought rapproachment with international financial institutions and London and Brussels at a time when the president is ratcheting up rhetoric against the West.

These constituents within the war veterans political grouping (war veterans associations, war veterans in the security sector and Mnangagwa as a war veteran) that the vice-president is utilising in his approach against Mugabe also represent the triumvirate that makes up the infrastructure which Mugabe has used to maintain power since Independence.

Thus, war veterans as an association, have legitimised Mugabe’s pan-Africanist and liberation rhetoric and politics; the war veternas as security has also crushed dissent and provided logistical and mobilisational support for Mugabe during elections; and Mnangagwa as one of the the ultimate war veterans, has over the years acted as Mugabe’s enforcer as he ruthlessly crushed dissent that, for example, saw thousands die in the 1980s or hundreds during 2008 elections.

Without this triumvirate, Mugabe might struggle to stay until 2018. Indeed, it might not be an exagerration to suggest that the day that Zimbabwe’s long-time ruler parted ways with the war veterans is the day that his rule effectively started to disintegrate.

Tinhu is a political analyst based in the UK.

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