By Tawanda Majoni
An early scrutiny of the recent war veterans’ rebellion against President Robert Mugabe and its immediate circumstances winds up at three rational conclusions.
It has already caused bodily damage to Mugabe and Zanu PF, but it will not force the ruling party boss to leave office prior to congress in 2019.
Thirdly, the current ex-combatants’ leadership will soon dissipate, and thus will not be part of any exclusive veterans’ anti-Mugabe movement prior to the 2018 general elections.
War veterans from all 10 provinces, including all district chairpersons, met in Harare on 21 July in what appears to be a hastily convened but well-funded meeting. Their chairperson, Chris Mutsvangwa, was not there, though.
In retrospect, this could have been for strategic reasons. He has just been expelled from Zanu PF, so the best thing to do was for him to tag the reins from out of sight so that it wouldn’t appear as if the meeting was a sour grapes convention.
The resolutions of the meeting took many aback. Participants agreed that Mugabe is too old to haul us out of the mud now, and that he is a dictator with “abhorable and poor leadership”. The veterans did not spare the police either.
They showed persisting bitterness that the cops had tear-gassed and water-cannoned them when they tried to hold a rally earlier this year.
Most dramatically, they declared right at the end of a communique distributed at the meeting that they were withdrawing their political campaign support for him and Zanu PF. Interestingly, they never said Mugabe was no longer their patron.
Predictably, State agencies are drawing spins out of the meeting, but especially the communique. A witch hunt is already underway. Initially, there was an excited attempt to reduce the authorship of the document to one person, Mutsvangwa. Then the conspiracy theory shifted to external regime change agents.
Rightly or wrongly, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line, of course, is that the communique is a mirror reflection of how the veterans are feeling and thinking. Dialogue during the Thursday meeting amply demonstrated that and it is vain to dismiss the communique as a Fifth Column job. The whole thing was cleverly plotted.
What happened on Thursday at the Raylton Sports Club has immediate ramifications for Zanu PF and President Mugabe and, depending on how the winds blow from now, the ripples could linger into the short term or even far future. The first thing is, the war veterans have crossed the red line, and Zanu PF will never be the same again.
It doesn’t matter whether or not the veterans will make a clean break from Mugabe and Zanu PF or not. They have completed the demystification of Mugabe who for a long time seemed invincible and beyond public reproach. It is telling that the pronouncements of disengagement came from erstwhile strategic and loyal political partners who propped his long stay in power.
The timing reinforces Mugabe’s mounting power challenges. The meeting and the communique came hardly on the heels of a dramatic wave of popcorn citizen protests that must also have shaken the president and his remaining cohort of loyalists.
We had never seen that kind of protests since 1980 when Zimbabwe gained independence and Mugabe started enjoying State power. Citizens organised themselves into angry demonstrations and their core message was: Mugabe, go now!
It didn’t help matters that the ex-combatants spoke the same language as the citizen activists, who President Mugabe and his grovelling spindoctors chose to view as agents of regime change. The world thus has a very good reason to sit up and notice.
These veterans are the same people who led the invasion of white-owned farms as part of Mugabe’s strategy to win back votes in the 2000s. They are the same people who beat up and even murdered people who dared oppose Mugabe. They didn’t care whether you were talking sense or not; they just wouldn’t hear you rough talk Mugabe.
So, when they turn around and start seeing the emperor’s nakedness and loudly talk about it, the message will travel far and wide. That is a significant political-psychological effect of the veterans’ rebellion on Thursday.
People in the rural areas which used to be Zanu PF’s strongholds, for instance, have already heard that the war vets said they are no longer supporting Mugabe or ruling party campaigns. That will stick in their minds and convince them that Zanu PF is dying, so they must pack up and move on.
Depending on what methods Zanu PF will use to campaign towards 2018, there is likelihood that rural voters might shift their loyalties to other political parties. In this regard, Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First and MDC-T—but especially the former—are bound to reap some harvests from a disillusioned rural electorate.
This would work more effectively if the parties recruit the war vets to mobilise support for them. But if Zanu PF is clever enough to continue using poverty as a tool and dangling the usual handouts as the other parties just jaw-jaw, the scenario may be different.
One effect that the rebellion could have intended right from the start is putting pressure on Mugabe to rethink his weird intention to run for re-election in 2018, when he is 94.
Certainly, the pressure is bearing on the Old Man. He might publicly pretend to be strong—as strong as a 92 year-old will be—but the war vets’ Mgagao Declaration 2 will cause him sleepless nights. Unless he has turned completely senile, he will see that things have dramatically changed and he is no longer the icon that he used to be.
But there is a big problem here. Mugabe will not heed the call for him to quit the comfort of State House before 2019. That means he won’t even consider going now as many Zimbabweans are demanding.
On 19 March, just after the war vets had been tear-gassed in Harare, the president made an interesting comment while addressing a rally in Bindura. He said he was ready to quit if the war veterans said he must go. The veterans have said he must go and Mugabe’s promise would ordinarily provide a source of hope. Sadly, it doesn’t.
President Mugabe is a clever speaker who carefully chooses his words. When he promised to go upon the war vets demanding him to do so, he made two rigid conditionalities.
Firstly, the ex-combatants must channel their demand through Zanu PF. They didn’t do that on Thursday, so the demand won’t stick. Secondly, they must take their demand to congress where a replacement would be agreed on, if there is any. The next congress will be in 2019! Barring other possibilities like death or incapacitation, that means Mugabe will still contest in 2018. That remains perfectly constitutional too.
Mugabe recently threatened brute force on war veterans for publicly supporting Mnangagwa. That force is likely to be cruder now that they have openly told him to go. The ex-combatants leadership is likely to be hung up for braai. They are already exposed because the very man they want to take over, Mnangagwa, has disowned them publicly.
For some time, he has been under pressure to make clear his position regarding his relationship with the ex-combatants. He has tried his best to remain quiet, but the vice president is buckling as the game hots up. He would always be damned for remaining quiet, and damned too for speaking on the matter. Yet he has decided to speak against his backers, describing them as nonsensical.
It appears Mnangagwa, by denying paternity of the ex-combatants rebellion, is just trying to wiggle out of a big political fix. In this case, he would continue nudging the veterans to spoil the sport and secretly rendering them his support.
Unfortunately, that is not sustainable. These war veterans still remember what Mnangagwa did in 2004. He dumped a whole team of Zanu PF provincial chairpersons and other key schemers who were backing his succession plot at the last minute when they gathered at Dinyane High School in Tsholotsho. That was when his rivals in Zanu PF got wind of the intended palace coup.
Crocodiles never shed their tails; they only change the hunting grounds. Mnangagwa is a shrewd, albeit yellow-bellied, schemer. He has probably weighed between hiding under Mugabe’s patronage and working with the veterans, and chosen the former.
It goes without saying that, as a vice president and Zanu PF legal affairs supremo, he failed to protect Mutsvangwa whose charges were clearly untenable. If he can’t protect Mutsvangwa, he won’t protect lesser war vets, period.
The probability, therefore, that the war veterans leadership will dissipate is high. This is because war veterans are bound by the Defence Act as they are a reserve force and are subject to disciplinary action for dissing their commander-in-chief.
It is possible that they will get rid of Mutsvangwa and the other top leaders. With the big head gone, they will then cause new elections to be held so that there is a more pliant leadership of the vets’ movement.
This is what has always happened, from the days of Chenjerai Hunzvi to Jabulani Sibanda. The current war vets leadership is too aware of the game plan, and they said so in their communique. There is no evidence so far that they will resist and keep the association in its status quo. These are the same guys who threatened to bar G40 figureheads from a rally at the Zanu PF headquarters some months ago and when the day came, they followed the events from Africa Unity Square, some kilometres away.
The generals who are said to have also supported the vets will look away. They have their largess to protect and don’t want to rock the boat yet.
At the end of the day, most of the grassroots war veterans will simply walk away, like weary and wounded soldiers leaving a crumbled war camp, but Zanu PF will never be the same again.