THE fallout between President Robert Mugabe and war veterans, once his most loyal allies, may force Zimbabwe’s military to show its hand, sooner, rather than later.
The country is slipping deeper and deeper into an economic crisis, which has the potential of reconfiguring its political landscape.
The war veterans’ association has strong links to Zimbabwe’s military — the latter, which although sidelined, remains potential kingmaker in Zanu-PF’s long-drawn out succession race. Last week it reminded Mugabe it was the veterans’ support during the liberation war that elevated him to the leadership of Zanu-PF in the late 1970s.
“When he arrived in Mozambique … he was not the president of Zanu-PF, but we made him so. Our decision to make him the president of Zanu-PF was accepted here at home, regionally by the Frontline States and internationally. Yet, today, he refers to us as irrelevant,” the veterans’ association said.
The war veterans’ chairman, Chris Mutsvangwa, expelled in July from Zanu-PF, has close associations with the army generals.
Mutsvangwa is also an ally of Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice-president and the frontrunner to succeed Mugabe.
A war veterans’ conference held in April and presided over by Mugabe drew hundreds of top army personnel.
“The military and war veterans are one and the same thing,” said Eddie Cross, a legislator from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party. “Virtually every army commander and senior army official was there. I cannot see the military standing aloof in all of this and not doing a thing.”
Cross said the “strong language” with which the war veterans had called time on Mugabe’s rule marked the beginning of the end.
“This is a very serious crisis for Mugabe, and his departure date has been brought forward.”
Relations between Mugabe and the war veterans have been strained for months. In March, police threw tear gas and fired water cannons at them for gathering for an unauthorised meeting. Mugabe is the official patron of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association.
Their attempts most recently to add input into the party’s succession race earned a strong rebuke from Mugabe, who warned they risked suffering the fate of the mid-1980s “dissidents”.
But if the war veterans’ strategy was to surprise and go for the jugular after months of fiery exchanges with Mugabe, they won.
Members of Mugabe’s inner circle were caught off guard by the veterans’ hard-hitting statement, which called Mugabe “manipulative”, and by the bold declaration that the veterans would not support him in the next elections.
“I was also surprised by the statement,” said Tshinga Dube, the state minister responsible for veterans’ welfare.
“Among those war veterans there are different groups. I had assumed that they were all Zanu-PF, so I will find out whether this is the true position.”
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Ben Freeth is a former commercial farmer, who crossed paths with the war veterans during Zimbabwe’s land seizures in 2000. He said the fallout reflected the collapse of a system of patronage Mugabe had put together.
“The last time such confrontation took place was in 1997, and then Mugabe could afford payouts. Now there is no way for him to pull money out of the hat to pay them off. As is often said, you can’t rig the economy, and his support base will wane and wane until he is gone.”
As the twilight years of his political career set in, Mugabe is isolated. Western financial institutions refused to extend any new funding during talks in London in July. His allies, China and Russia, have also not responded to calls for financial aid.
At home, a popular citizen’s movement driven by social media has turned the tide against his rule. Ordinary people have taken to the streets in protest.
Yet, even in the face of mounting unrest, Mugabe has remained defiant. He blames western sanctions and a “third force” for the turmoil. Mugabe, it seems, will fight on.