HomeAnalysisWar veterans’ love-hate affair with Mugabe and his endgame

War veterans’ love-hate affair with Mugabe and his endgame

Last Friday’s resign or else ultimatum to President Robert Mugabe — who eventually resigned on Tuesday — by the battle-hardened veterans of Zimbabwe’s protracted, widespread and bitter struggle for liberation was a turning point in their long and fraught relationship.

Gwinyai A Dzinesa,Political analyst

As deliverers of Zimbabwe’s Independence from Britain in 1980, the former liberation war fighters wield symbolic political and moral power in the country and warring ruling Zanu PF. Mugabe, a heroic leader of Zimbabwe’s liberation war, was patron of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) until their estrangement last year. The ZNLWVA have played an intriguing role in trapping Mugabe in his current endgame.

ZNLWVA chair Chris Mutsvangwa, one of the war veterans Mugabe fired from government and Zanu PF, declared last week that “the game is up” for Mugabe. The ZNLWVA then called for the unprecedented Saturday mass protests to “finish the job which the army started” after Mugabe defiantly clung to power. In what Mutsvangwa termed “military correction”, the army’s earlier precisely planned and executed intervention had not openly called on Mugabe to resign.

The military command element, themselves liberation war veterans, carefully stated its intervention was “only targeting criminals around him that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice”. It appeared the army generals hoped to persuade Mugabe to depart State House in a comradely manner.

Like the military high command, the ZNLVWA embodies the ideals of the independence war and were angered by Mugabe’s systematic purging of Zanu PF members with liberation war credentials. This was within the context of the internecine power struggles to succeed Mugabe as leader of the ruling party and the country.

First Lady Grace Mugabe figured prominently in the battle for Zanu PF’s soul. Earlier in 2014, she had been instrumental in the expulsion of former vice-president Joice Mujuru and several other nationalists from the party.

Grace Mugabe was the front-lady of one of Zanu PF’s factions — the Generation 40 (G40) — comprising the party’s ambitious young Turks mostly without liberation war credentials. The G40 was in contention with the Team Lacoste clique backing Mujuru’s replacement Emmerson Mnangagwa in the ruling party’s game of thrones. The ZNLWVA were in Mnangagwa’s corner and accused the G40 cabal of destabilising the revolutionary party.

Matters came to a head with Mugabe’s axing of liberation war stalwart and deputy president Mnangagwa in early November from both the government and ruling party. This followed the Mugabe couple’s public haranguing of Mnangagwa including belittling his liberation war role. The ploy to shoehorn Grace Mugabe into Mnangagwa’s former position at Zanu PF’s upcoming December extraordinary congress and thus anoint her successor to her husband’s throne was too ghastly for some party stalwarts. The military interceded to protect the revolutionary party from the G40 faction and ask Mugabe to resign without publicly humiliating him.
The ZNLWVA upped the ante after Mugabe dug in his heels and refused to vacate the top job in the ruling party and government. They spearheaded a Zanu PF central committee meeting on Sunday, which fired Mugabe as party head and his wife as head of the party’s women’s group. The meeting expelled Grace Mugabe and her G40 acolytes. The central committee nullified Mugabe’s expulsion of Mnangagwa and made him interim party supremo in what seemed like a classic palace revolution. These decisions are expected to be ratified at the ruling party’s extraordinary congress in December.

However, in a televised epic and cryptic Sunday night statement, a bold Mugabe said he will preside over the congress. This baffled many who had anticipated his resignation. The ZNLWVA swiftly promised to organize further anti-Mugabe demonstrations. It also urged the ruling party to initiate parliamentary moves to impeach Mugabe as the country’s president. This was part of a bid to dethrone Mugabe within a constitutional framework in line with Zanu PF central committee resolutions. So, how did we arrive at the current Mugabe endgame imbroglio given the war veterans historical veneration of their towering liberation hero?

Although the relationship between war veterans and Mugabe dates back to the violent anti-colonial war it crystalised into the ZNLWVA-patron union in 1989. It had the hallmarks of a forced marriage. The union came about almost a decade after the Mugabe-led government had attempted to address one of the immediate post-colonial challenges of ensuring that former fighters, whatever their prior allegiance, would henceforth serve in reconstituted military and police units loyal to new civilian authorities, or as equally loyal disarmed and demobilised citizens of the newly reconstituted nation.

To its credit, the Mugabe-led coalition government innovatively implemented the demobilisation and reintegration of war veterans alongside military integration as part of a problematic nation- and state-building project. However, several adverse factors undermined the possibility of initiatives including public sector job placement, cash, formal education, vocational training and co-operative enterprises to guarantee the long-term livelihoods of ex-combatants. These included ex-combatants ill-equipped to manage cash, limited training colleges to foster entrepreneurship and lack of sustained financial and technical support for co-operatives.
Up to 25 000 war veterans could therefore not be placed into productive and sustainable civilian roles by the late 1980s. Their destitution contrasted to the optimistic hope for a prosperous post-war life that they harboured having supped the wartime “land of milk and honey” idyll.
Significantly, Mugabe’s government maintained gross silence over the desperate existence of war veterans and thus made no attempt to address their plight. Meanwhile, the historical ethnic polarisation that characterised Zimbabwe’s political prevented the establishment of a national war veterans lobby group meaning the destitute ex-combatants remained forgotten heroes.

The Unity Accord of 1987 between Mugabe’s Zanu and Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu ended their traditional ethnic conflict and seven years-long violent campaign of the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland and Midlands. This facilitated the establishment of the representative ZNLWVA in 1989 that transcended the ex-combatant political, regional and ethnic affiliations to lobby government for their welfare concerns.
Ironically, Mugabe’s liberation movement-cum-government had attempted to officially suppress the establishment of such an association. It saw the idea of bringing the politically significant liberation war veterans together as a threat. The fact that efforts to establish the association intensified at a time when expelled Zanu PF secretary general, Edgar Tekere, formed the opposition Zimbabwe Unity Movement deepened the apprehension of Mugabe’s government.
Notwithstanding this, the ZNLWVA courted and made Mugabe its patron. This marked the beginning of their marriage of convenience. Scholar Norma Kriger succinctly characterised the relationship between Mugabe’s Zanu PF and war veterans as one of “power seeking agendas, their appeals to the revolutionary liberation, their use of violence and intimidation” and their “simultaneous conflict and collaboration as party and veterans manipulate one another.”
The marriage had its ups and downs. At least, it started on a rather optimistic note.
During the honeymoon period, war veterans swiftly used the ZNLWVA as an institutionalised structure and a platform to lobby for government’s recognition of their liberation war roles, welfare support and to become relevant in the country’s body politic. Mugabe was a sympathetic partner.

In a move tailored to appease the increasingly disgruntled ex-combatants, Mugabe’s government, which relies on its war credentials for legitimacy, promulgated the 1992 War Veterans Act. The law, in many respects a comprehensive and progressive document, provided for the creation of a War Veterans Fund to address the plight of ex-combatants and their dependents in distress. Nevertheless, the Act fell victim to chasm between promise and performance due to bureaucratic bungling over its implementation and failure by the then ZNLWVA leadership to prod the government into addressing this. As the law remained non-operational, the majority of war veterans continued living in desperate poverty.

The election of Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi as ZNLWVA chairman in 1995 was a game-changer that revitalised the organisation, which rather had lain dormant. The Hunzvi-led ZNLWVA executive significantly sensitised war veterans about the War Victims Compensation Fund (WVCF) established by the Mugabe-led government in line with the War Victims Compensation Act of 1980 to cater for all war-injured persons (both ex-combatants and civilians) that they could have recourse to. A sudden rise in the rate of claims for compensation in 1997 and imprudence in the assessment of claimants’ degrees of disability resulted. A whopping Z$450 million was released in the last eight months of the 1996/1997 financial year alone to mostly undeserving beneficiaries including government ministers and senior police and military officers.

Mugabe’s government temporarily suspended the WVCF in July 1997 to stem its further abuse and the president appointed a judiciary commission to investigate the fund’s administration between 1980 and 1997. Indeed, the commission concluded that corrupt administrators bungled the scheme and had colluded with senior government officials to swindle the WVCF.

The ZNLWVA was soon at loggerheads with Mugabe’s government over the suspension of the WVCF. Many unemployed and disillusioned war veterans were logically infuriated as the fund was their lifeline. In effect, the WVCF’s suspension became the launching pad for the ZNLWVA to seek redress from Mugabe’s government. The war veterans dramatised this through nationwide rolling protests aimed at the ruling party and government leaders.

The protests included unprecedented stopping by the gates of State House, demonstration outside the presidential offices (Munhumutapa Building) during the course of a cabinet meeting, demonstrating at an African-African American Summit and disruption of Mugabe’s speech at Heroes Day commemorations at the National Heroes Acre. The marginalised war veterans openly confronted and denounced their patron, President Mugabe himself. They demanded welfare benefits and a return to the liberation agenda, including the fast-track resolution of the land issue.

Indeed, Mugabe’s government had clamped down on war veteran inspired farm invasions in the late 1990s.

Mugabe, arguably out of political expediency to protect his Zanu PF regime rather than economic considerations, awarded the riotous war veterans cash benefits to defuse a potentially explosive situation. Over 52 000 war veterans received a one-off Z$50 000 (about US$4 500 at that time) gratuities and Z$2 000 monthly pensions each at an estimated initial cost of over Z$4,5 billion. The unbudgeted Z$4,5 billion payout triggered “Black Friday” on 14 November 1997 when the Zimbabwe dollar lost 71,5 per cent of its value from around Z$10 to below Z$30 to the US$ over four hours of trading time and the stock market crashed 46%.

In addition, the comprehensive War Veterans “Pensions and Benefit Scheme”, entitled registered war veterans to settlement, loan, education, funeral and medical benefits at the state’s expense.

From 2000, the ZNLWVA played a prominent political role in keeping Mugabe on the throne. In the run-up to the 2000 parliamentary elections, Mugabe’s regime discovered war veterans who were on the dole as pliable political partners in a violent campaign trail. This included violent oppression of the opposition, civil society activists and the land grab of white commercial farms, ostensibly to address the unequal access to land aligned with racial identity.

This occurred after a Zanu PF backed draft constitution was rejected in a February 2000 national referendum. The rejected constitution would have allowed the state to compulsorily acquire agricultural land for resettlement while obliging Britain as the “former colonial power” to compensate the white commercial farmers.

The rejection of the government’s draft charter partly as a result of the newly founded opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)/National Constitutional Assembly orchestrated “No” campaign, itself aided by the prevailing socioeconomic morass and backing of white farmers, confirmed the strength of the opposition movement.

The opposition’s popularity threatened Zanu PF’s political hegemony while war veterans detested “unrepentant” white commercial farmers’ sabotage of land reform through their support for the “No” vote. This resulted in a new-found magical romance between Mugabe’s beleaguered ruling party and the ZNLWVA. Some war veterans and Zanu PF lurched towards an angry showdown with white commercial farmers, whom the ruling party had been quick to identify as the main culprits behind the success of the MDC.

Some war veterans led the compulsory Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP) in 2000, which targeted about 3 000 white commercial farms for resettlement by black beneficiaries. Zanu PF youth militia later joined the war veterans. The violent FTLRP was executed under the banner of the Third Chimurenga economic war, ostensibly to exorcize Zimbabwe’s colonial remnants. This centred upon countering the MDC, which was described as symbolising imperial forces and white power. The ZNLWVA and Mugabe needed each other to safeguard the revolution.

Likewise, some war veterans and the youth militia, who had by then effectively become the ruling Zanu PF party’s political campaign vanguard and election agents, played prominent roles in the country’s subsequent disputed 2002 and 2008 polls, which were marred by widespread institutionalised violence and intimidation. Although the violent efforts of the war veterans safeguarded Mugabe’s reign and the revolution, they were castigated in some quarters as having turned from liberators to oppressors.

From 2013, the marriage between the ZNLVWA and Mugabe was back on the rocks. Zanu PF had re-entrenched its political hegemony in the country after skillfully engineering a crushing victory in the relatively peaceful July 2013 elections. Coincidentally, war veterans who had played a prominent role in maintaining Mugabe in power renewed their well-founded clamour for full provision of statutory welfare benefits from Mugabe’s cash-strapped government. In addition to lack of financial resources, lack of political will and administrative shortcomings had undermined the delivery of the benefits.

In the run-up to Zanu PF’s 2014 congress, then ZNLWVA leader Jabulani Sibanda threatened to lead war veterans on a march to State House to demand an audience with Mugabe. Sibanda, who had spearheaded war veteran politically motivated violence to help Zanu PF cling to power, had by then also become vocal in condemning First Lady Grace Mugabe’s embroilment in Zanu PF leadership wrangles.

Now ensconced in power, Zanu PF engineered the ouster of Sibanda after he supposedly insulted Mugabe. Sibanda had allegedly claimed Mugabe and his wife were plotting a bedroom coup against then vice-president Mujuru and that he would not allow for political power to be “sexually transmitted” from Mugabe to his wife.

A new leadership under then Deputy Foreign Minister Chris Mutsvangwa replaced the doomed Sibanda-led ZNLWA executive just before the Zanu PF congress. After the 2014 congress, President Mugabe announced a ZANU-PF politburo with a new department for war veterans, war collaborators, ex-political detainees and restrictees to cater for the welfare of the former freedom fighters. Defence minister Sydney Sekeremayi was appointed head of the department.

Significantly, new ZNLWVA leader Mutsvangwa, was assigned deputy head of the party department.

In 2015, Mutsvangwa was subsequently named head of the newly created dedicated Ministry for Welfare Services for War Veterans, War Collaborators, Ex-Political Detainees and Restrictees.

These developments carried several messages depending on the political perspective of the observer. First, President Mugabe, who was also ZNLWVA patron, would ensure implementation of the 2013 Constitution (Sections 23 and 84), which obligates the state to provide for the welfare and livelihoods of war veterans. Second, the president was prepared to mainstream war veterans’ welfare in all levels of political decision-making at the ruling party (politburo) and government (cabinet). Third, the ZANU-PF government aimed to unify and organise liberation war veterans for their effective and sustainable mainstreaming and effective participation in the country’s economic and sociopolitical progress.

Fourth, the ruling party aimed to pacify the restive ex-combatants and keep them in line and not merely address their welfare concerns. Fifth, the moves were quid pro quos for war veterans’ help in maintaining Zanu PF in power. Lastly, the ZNLWVA leader’s combination of the politburo and ministerial roles is consistent with political imperatives of fusing the ruling party and state bureaucracy.

However, Zimbabwe’s experience of an economic crisis since the 1990s meant the state did not have the largesse to distribute to the liberation war veterans. Meanwhile, the factional battles to succeed Mugabe raged on.

In July 2016, the ZNLWVA effectively ended their troubled marriage with Mugabe when they released a damning communique on him and Zanu PF. The stinging communique criticised Mugabe’s dictatorial leadership, failure to stop Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown, corruption and widespread poverty.

In serving their divorce papers on Mugabe, the disenchanted liberation war stalwarts called on Mugabe to step down as his continued stay in power impeded Zimbabwe’s development. The ZNLWVA warned that Mugabe would be “a hard-sell” for Zanu PF in Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections. An angry Mugabe warned the former freedom fighters of dire consequences including Zanu’s liberation wartime extrajudicial punitive measures.

Then perceived dissenters were caged in dungeons. Indeed, the police cracked down on the ZNLWVA leadership and arrested some. Mugabe booted Mustvangwa from government and the party for ill-discipline. The Mutsvangwa-led ZNLWVA leadership lamented that they had in fact been expelled from the party not by Mugabe but by the G40 group.

Mugabe realised the dangers of losing the backing of the ZNLWVA and with it his and Zanu PF’s revolutionary liberation war claim. He also needed the support of the significant war veterans’ constituency for the 2018 polls.

Mugabe attempted to mend relations with the ZNLWVA leadership through overtures of gifts including cash, land and vehicles. The ZNLWVA contemptuously rebuffed these.

The marriage between the ZNLWVA and Mugabe had irretrievably broken down. The ZNLWVA saw no value in accepting cars when Mugabe’s cash-strapped regime was failing to deliver war veterans’ statutory benefits and many were wallowing in poverty and hunger. In November 2016, the disaffected fighters scrapped the position of patron, which Mugabe held, from the ZNLWVA constitution. Many Zanu PF veterans saw this as sealing the ZNLWVA’s divorce from Mugabe.

The obituary of the marriage is being written in Mugabe’s endgame. It remains to be seen whether the pending wedding between the ZNLWVA and Mnangagwa is also founded on love for the country they helped liberate from the yokes of colonialism. Zimbabweans have mixed feelings about whether this couple will preside over a much-needed economic miracle and the consolidation of democracy they fought for. Both partners have been implicated in post-colonial Zimbabwe’s violent past. Perhaps this couple just may use this occasion to rehabilitate its image and endear itself to Zimbabweans as it tries to make it for the long haul.

Dzinesa is a freelance peace and security researcher. His latest book Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration in Southern Africa: Swords into Ploughshares? has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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