No matter where you look, Zimbabwe is on the cusp of change. Robert Mugabe was in power from 18 April 1980, when the country gained its independence from Britain following a 15-year guerrilla war – first as Prime Minister and then as President from 1987. Now he has resigned, and the way has been cleared for Zimbabwe to step out of the shadow of its infamous ruler.

Following military intervention that saw tanks take the streets of Harare and assume control of national broadcasters, Mugabe initially failed to announce his much-anticipated resignation in a speech to congress.

However, as he has now agreed to step aside, what will the future look like for Zimbabwe?

Echoes of history

Zimbabwe’s independence was a moment of celebration for Zimbabweans and Africans, coming as welcome respite for a population tired of war. The general expectation of the black majority was that independence would bring prosperity.

Fast forward to 2017, and a similar narrative of hope and renewal is beginning to unfold. Having endured 37 years of President Mugabe’s rule – punctuated by massive economic hardship – a military coup threatens to depose the country’s nonagenarian leader.

With the architects of the coup in desperate need of legitimacy, they sought support from the people under the guise of liberation from Mugabe, and thousands took to the streets to demand his deposition.

Filling the power vacuum

The main protagonists in Zimbabwe’s war of independence were the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by Robert Mugabe, and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo. The ZANU remains a dominant player in Zimbabwe’s political landscape today in the form of the ZANU-PF, while the opposition takes the form of the long-suffering Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDCZ).

During the conflict years, both had armed wings: the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) respectively. The ZIPRA was based over the border in Zambia, receiving military assistance from the Soviet Union; while the ZANLA received military help from China and was based in Mozambique.

In a bid for control in post-war Zimbabwe, the two parties were often at each other’s throats. An attempt to unify the ZANU and ZAPU through the Popular Front in 1977 failed, with the two parties competing once more at elections in 1980.

The animosity between the ZANU and ZAPU came to a head between 1983 and 1987, when unrest in Matabeleland resulted in the deaths of 3,750 people. When the Lancaster House Agreement was signed in December 1979, demobilisation protocol was put into place as part of the settlement.

Robert Mugabe runway 1983
Prime Minister Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe during a state visit in 1983. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Post-independence scenario

Demobilisation itself faced many challenges, amplified by the unrealistic expectations of ex-combats hoping for a “good life” in return for their sacrifices.

The conditions after independence turned out to be very different to what they had envisioned, and were characterised by rampant unemployment. Feeling hard-done-by, ex-combatants became major players in independent Zimbabwe, using their status to gain power, excluding others who did not participate in the liberation struggle.

The War Veterans Association was formed to represent the affairs of these ex-combatants, dates back to the assimilation of the ZAPU and ZANU in 1987, creating the modern-day ZANU PF.

The current climate

According to academic Norma Kriger, Zimbabwe’s military coup should be seen in the context of a “continuation of a political discourse about ‘authentic’ and ‘fake’ veterans that has been used by veterans and the party since 1980”.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that General Chiwenga’s prescient statement prior to the military takeover makes reference to “counter revolutionary infiltrators who are now effectively influencing the direction of the Party”. This discourse sought to amplify the narrative that those without battle credentials rank low in the chain of command.

Such a claim is not without precedent. In the period immediately preceding the 2002 general election, General Vitalis Zvinavashe proclaimed that: “We would not accept, let alone support or salute anyone with a different agenda”. Zvinavashe’s statement was in reference to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was widely tipped to win the election.

Political infighting

The military action of 14 November was once more engendered by an internal conflict between ZANU PF war veterans: the military-aligned ‘Lacoste’ faction within the party and the ‘G40’ group. The two have been in perpetual conflict since independence.

Many did not realise that, as an organ of ZANU PF, the military was equally involved in the factional battle. This is underlined by General Chiwenga’s statement before the coup, which ordered that “the current purging, which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background, must stop forthwith”.

In accordance with the constitutional provisions of Zimbabwe, the military is expected to remain apolitical, hence any intra-party purging ought not to have had any bearing on the actions of the army. If anything, the General’s statement confirmed that the military is a constituency of the ruling ZANU PF, and that it supports the Lacoste faction. The military coup was therefore a battle for controlling ZANU PF.

The clear message to be deduced from the military at the outset of the coup was that it is a key organ of ZANU PF, and if there is any threat to their interests they will intervene.

Who will emerge on top?

In the coming weeks and months, the ZANU PF will likely bury the hatchet and emerge the stronger. The euphoria of 18 November 2017 has already started to dissipate, much like the elation of April 1980 fizzled away. Unlike 1980, this time Zimbabweans will realise that they were used as proxies in a factional fight.

Zimbabwe is a divided nation, dating back to 1980. Military veterans, seasoned political campaigners and the general citizenry form its major bargaining chips. Until Zimbabweans answer this clarion call, conflict will persist and social rifts will widen.

It is difficult to imagine that the ZANU PF will manage to bridge this gap. However, if it is to remain relevant, the ZANU PF needs to shrug off the burden of its liberation-fighting past.


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