Mugabe and the revolt of the war veterans


In October 1975, a group of young and radical ZANLA guerrillas stationed at Mgagao, a military training camp based in Tanzania, authored a document, now famously known as the Mgagao Declaration. In that document, the guerrillas denounced the leadership of Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, who was the President of ZANU and other nationalist leaders. They also extolled the virtues of Robert Mugabe describing him as the only “outstanding” leader who had “defied the rigours of guerrilla life in the jungles of Mozambique” and whom they respected more than other nationalist leaders.

The Mgagao Declaration became the foundation of the revolt against Reverend Sithole and the platform upon which Mugabe was elevated to the leadership of ZANU, which was formalised at a special congress in 1977.

On 21 July 2016, a group of veterans of the liberation war gathered at Harare and issued another declaration. “… we the veterans of Zimbabwe’s war of liberation, together with our toiling masses, hereby declare that henceforth, in any forthcoming elections, will not support such a leader who has presided over untold suffering of the general population for his own personal aggrandizement and that of his cronies,” wrote the war veterans in an unprecedented attack.

“Such a leader” is, quite remarkably, Mugabe – quite a contrast from the glowing assessment 41 years before. Looked at from this angle of history, the political and historical significance of this moment cannot be overstated. It represents a major turning point in the long relationship between Mugabe and the war veterans. The war veterans’ declaration is a statement of an irretrievable breakdown in a relationship dating back to the Mgagao Declaration. It opens a new chapter and things will never be the same again.

Mugabe and the war veterans

The relationship between Mugabe and the war veterans has gone through various phases since independence. They have been one of the foremost allies since Mugabe faced a serious crisis after Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC joined the political fray in 1999. However, the relationship has not always been smooth-sailing. After the integration of the Rhodesian Security Forces and the liberation armies, ZANLA and ZIPRA, excess guerrillas who could be absorbed into the new Zimbabwe National Army and Air Force of Zimbabwe were demobilized and given modest pay-outs to start new lives.

But they were never quite prepared for life after war and as their demob pay-outs ran out or projects failed, their lives began to deteriorate and yet saw their former leaders prospering. Grievances over the neglect of war veterans led to the formation in the early 1990s of the Zimbabwe National War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) to look after the welfare needs of former fighters. However, a War Victims Compensation Fund set up to compensate war veterans was massively looted by political elites, including senior Ministers and government officials. It was one of the biggest corruption scandals. Although there was a judicial Commission of Enquiry, not a single corrupt official was ever convicted of any offence.

During this period, the war veterans began to make demands upon the state. In August 1997, Mugabe experienced the wrath of war veterans when they drowned his speech at the National Heroes Acre. This was an unprecedented and embarrassing moment which exposed and shook Mugabe. He very quickly acceded to their demands, giving each war veteran ZWD50,000 at a time when the Zimbabwe dollar was still a very strong currency. However, after the unbudgeted pay-outs, overnight, the dollar plunged against major currencies and the stock market crashed, in what became known as Black Friday – 14th November 1997. Many say that this was the beginning of the collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar. It never recovered until its abandonment just over a decade later, when it was virtually worthless.

However, the huge pay-outs cemented a relationship that was nearing a breakdown. Mugabe had regained a strong ally as the war veterans would provide some of his greatest backing in future elections.

Loyal and violent allies

The war veterans were one of the most critical elements in Mugabe’s political campaign for survival when he faced his sternest test from Tsvangirai. When the Mugabe government lost the vote for a new constitution they were promoting in February 2000, the war veterans stepped in to lead Mugabe’s political campaign, which began with the violent takeovers of commercial farms. Led by their combative leader, Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi, who had also led the pay-outs campaign in 1997, the war veterans were at the forefront of the violent land revolution. When white judges were purged from the Zimbabwean bench, it was the war veterans who led the campaign. On one occasion, Joseph Chinotimba, who is now an MP, invaded the Supreme Court along with a gang of veterans and danced on the tables, shouting at the judges.

However, more importantly, the war veterans were at the centre of Mugabe’s violent election campaigns. The most violent election campaign during this period was between 29 March and 27 June in 2008, when at least 200 opposition supporters were killed, thousands were injured or displaced from their homes. The war veterans were alleged to have played a key role in that campaign, along with the military.

Tensions and factions

However, this relationship has been showing signs of strain after the 2013 elections. The purge of Joice Mujuru and other liberation veterans in 2014 divided the war veterans, with one group clearly unhappy with their treatment. However, over time, it became clear, even to those who had persecuted Mujuru, that they too were victims of meticulous scheming and manipulation by Mugabe, who has always used factionalism to his advantage, a point they note in their declaration. This breakdown in relationship between Mugabe and the war veterans is one of the direct results of the factionalism that is ravaging ZANU PF. Some of the war veterans prefer Emmerson Mnangagwa while Mugabe appears to have a different preference, quite possibly his wife, Grace Mugabe, whom he has defended strenuously but is reviled by the war veterans.

In recent months, as the war veterans have gone one way, Mugabe appears to have relied more upon the women’s and youth wings of the party – the Women’s League which is led by his wife, and the Youth League. The signs of rupture were clear on the 25th May “Million Man March” which was organised by the Youth League. The Women’s League got a prominent role in the proceedings while the acknowledgement of war veterans was at best lukewarm.

When the war veterans demonstrated in Harare earlier this year, the response of the state was to send anti-riot police with water-cannons and tear-gas, treatment which is normally reserved for opposition and civil society activists. Mugabe later held a meeting with the war veterans and although he apologised for the tear-gassing, the tensions continued. In recent weeks. Mugabe has described war veterans as dissidents, language which echoes comments made in the 1980s which were followed by the Gukurahundi atrocities against the people of Matabeleland and the Midlands. Furthermore, Chris Mutsvangwa, the head of the war veterans association has been purged and was recently sacked from ZANU PF. This week, he lost his parliamentary seat.

Thus, in the factional battles, Mugabe seems to have realised that he has already lost the war veterans and therefore began to focus on the women and the youth. It also explains the recent handouts of urban land to members of the Youth League. Mugabe is applying the same tactics which he used to lure and win the backing of the war veterans in the past when he doled out huge and unbudgeted pay-outs and rural agricultural land. Mugabe knows his survival in the 2018 elections (or his wife’s chances) is dependent not on the ageing war veterans but on the youths and the women. This is classic Mugabe: he has used the war veterans all these years but now he feels they have run past their sell-by date and he has been pushing them aside. Their statement is an indication that they have reluctantly accepted what was already clear for quite some time.

What about the military?

However, while Mugabe might do away with ageing war veterans, a question still remains as to what impact this breakdown in relationship might have on his relations with the security structure of the state. Senior figures of the military and other parts of the military are also veterans of the war and members of the war veterans association. These military officers are in an invidious position because on the one hand they are part of a military command structure which is led by Mugabe but on the other hand, they are also members of the “trade union” of the war veterans, which is now attacking their commander. Where do they stand in all this?

Their response to the declaration will be an important point to watch. It has been said that the military is divided along factional lines similar to those which have affected ZANU PF. If that is the case, there is every possibility that some might be supportive of the war veterans’ declaration while some will condemn it. It is also known that some of the generals have political ambitions and those interests may be aligned to war veterans. What is their position regarding the declaration?

This is a situation which presents a potential threat to national security. Could this unprecedented attack on the Commander-in-chief be a precursor to worse things? This is not made easy by government’s failure to pay wages of members of the security services. It’s a clear indication of state failure which presents a heightened risk to national security, particularly in this period of uncertainty.

Can Mujuru capitalise?

It will also be interesting to see how this rupture in the relationship between Mugabe and the war veterans plays out in the context of Mujuru and her party. Mujuru is one of the few opposition leaders with clear liberation war credentials, much-favoured by war veterans. There are already war veterans who are aligned to Mujuru. Now that the war veterans have withdrawn their support for Mugabe, it will be interesting to see whom they will back. It could be that Mujuru will exploit the breach and that a significant number of war veterans will gravitate towards her. If that happens, this could strengthen her fledgling party, particularly in the rural areas.

Citizens’ movement

It is noteworthy that in their strongly-worded statement, the war veterans make reference to the citizens’ movement which has taken the country by storm in recent weeks. In the attack on Mugabe’s recent condemnation of Pastor Evan Mawarire and #ThisFlag citizens’ movement, the war veterans defend people’s freedom of expression and criticise the repressive response of the state. Government and ZANU PF have been arguing that protestors are sponsored by the West, but in a clear rebuttal, the war veterans say, “we categorically reject the notion that those expressing views different to those that we hold are agents of foreign powers or agents and therefore enemies of the State. This notion, which to us is a diversionary tactic, contemptuously implies that Zimbabweans lack the capacity to rationalize issues; think through their problems and take decisive action against clear evidence of misrule”.

They called for accountability, “We therefore condemn the use of excessive force by the State against the citizens who were peacefully exercising their right to demonstrate against poor governance. We demand that those who exceeded the call of duty be held accountable in terms of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. We further demand that the State and all its actors respect, promote, protect and uphold our Constitution”.

Here the war veterans are gravitating towards the ordinary people and away from the political elites they have supported and defended for many years. This demonstration of solidarity from a key constituency of the ruling party is also a show of recognition of the impact already made by the citizens’ movement.

Scepticism and doubt

Nevertheless, people will be very sceptical, despite the war veterans’ unprecedented attack on Mugabe and his leadership. What they have said is precisely what Zimbabweans have been saying. Whoever, while they accuse Mugabe of many things, including insincerity, corruption, dictatorial tendencies, fanning factionalism, selfishness, genocidal tendencies, sponsoring mercenaries and abandoning the people, the war veterans themselves are by no means angels. They were among the foremost agents of the brutality of the Mugabe regime during the better days of their relationship.

No doubt mindful of this serious shortcoming, the war veterans express regret in their statement for having failed to stand by the people in the past:  “Regrettably, the general citizenry has previously been subjected to this inhuman and degrading treatment without a word of disapproval from us. That time has passed”. The public will see some expression of regret in this, but they will not be fooled. They will demand more. After all, war veterans are among those accused of committing crimes of politically-motivated violence against ordinary people. If they are demanding Mugabe to account, then they too must be prepared to account. It will take time to build trust.

Still however, the Zimbabwean public will welcome yet another addition to the broad, diverse and growing community of opponents to Mugabe, which has been raised its voice more loudly against the regime in recent months. The traditional opposition parties and civil society had endured a low period since the 2013 elections and there was a fatigue and hopelessness. However, this year has seen an escalation in political activity among citizens. Observers of African politics will point out that in order to defeat a regime such as Mugabe’s it may be necessary for the opposition to grit their teeth, accept those who have ‘repented’ into their ranks and forma broad coalition. The Kenyan precedent – the Rainbow Coalition of 2002 is often cited in this regard.

Mugabe will rely on his loyalists particularly in the youth and women’s wings of ZANU PF. No doubt, a faction of war veterans will disown the latest statement and declare their undying loyalty to Mugabe. Meanwhile, the political landscape is surely undergoing transformation. The only weakness and Mugabe’s advantage is that the traditional opposition parties are mired in their own problems. Dispirited and disunited, they have not been able to capitalise on ZANU PF’s growing weaknesses. If there was a time for unity of purpose in the opposition parties, that has to be now.

The Mgagao Declaration in 1975 paved the way for Mugabe to take power in ZANU after the fall of Reverend Sithole. He has held onto power ever since. It remains to be seen whether the 21st July Declaration by the war veterans, the men and women who elevated him, will pave the way for Mugabe’s final departure.

It’s far too early to judge but the significance of the moment is not to be underestimated. It’s been a long time since Mugabe was at the receiving end of such a devastating assault from an ally.