BESET by popular unrest over Zimbabwe’s desperate economic situation, President Robert Mugabe has achieved what once seemed impossible – become enemies with his former allies, veterans of the country’s independence war.
It is a drama that has echoes of a scene from the popular TV series “Game of Thrones”.
War veteran leaders boycotted a speech by Mugabe Monday to honour fighters of the country’s liberation war that brought him to power in 1980.
Last month their association, the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) denounced the 92-year-old-Mugabe, the only leader the country has had since independence, and one of the continent’s longest ruling strongmen.
In a searing condemnation, they described Mugabe as a dictator, “a leader who has presided over untold suffering of the general population for his own personal aggrandizement and that of his cronies” and said they wouldn’t support him in 2018 elections.
Mugabe’s government has since arrested and charged war veterans’ leaders, including secretary-general Victor Matemadanda, and the association’s spokesman Douglas Mahiya, in a crackdown against his erstwhile allies.
For the first time he did not mention the war veterans in his speech, and it was also the first time leaders of the group failed to attend the celebrations since ZNLWVA was formed in 1990.
The fall-out is fuelled both by factional struggles in the ruling Zanu-PF to succeed Mugabe who, despite his bravado, is frail and showing visible signs of wear and tear with every public appearance. It is also made worse by a deepening economic crisis.
Two factions have emerged in the ruling party, one linked to Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and one to Mugabe’s wife Grace who, though ruthless and ambitious, is seen as having no talent at all for the job.
The country has struggled to pay public workers on time amidst its worst financial squeeze since it dumped its hyperinflation-battered currency in 2009 and adopted the US dollar, South African rand, and other currencies.
Monthly salaries for army soldiers – another key power base for the nonagenarian leader – police officers, doctors, nurses, teachers and other public employees have been delayed for weeks over the past few months.
More than 90% of the population is not in formal employment. Last year it was reported that Zimbabwe’s formal jobs were lower than 47 years previously – when Mugabe was in jail and white minority premier Ian Smith ruled and the country was under international sanctions for unilaterally declaring independence from the U.K.
The current discontent led to strikes in July that closed businesses, government offices, schools and hospitals – the most significant popular defiance of Mugabe’s rule in a decade.
During his annual National Heroes Day speech, Mugabe promised the salaries would be paid.
“Measures to avoid delays in the payment of salaries for civil servants are being developed,” he said, but gave no timelines.
WAR VETERANS NOT ANGELS
But the war veterans are no angels. In several respects, especially as Mugabe’s attack dogs, they represent one of the worst faces of Zimbabwe politics.
Since 2000, they have been unleashed as a party militia by Mugabe to brutally beat down – and even kill – opposition supporters during elections.
The worst was during the 2008 presidential vote, which was first won narrowly by the main opposition party Movement For Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
The election was held on March 29, 2008 but the results were not announced until May 2. Tsvangirai won 47.9% of the vote and Mugabe 43.2%, which meant a run-off had to be held.
An unprecedented wave of violence, with the veterans at the centre of it, was unleashed as the second round vote approached on June 27, 2008. Tsvangirai, describing the election as a “violent sham”, and saying his supporters would be killed if they voted for him, was forced to withdraw, leaving Mugabe to coast home alone to victory.
In the mid-2000s the war veterans were also unleashed in the seizure of white-owned farms. Bearing clubs and machetes, they raided several white-owned farms, driving them off violently. The farm seizures are seen as one of the factors that ruined what once one of Africa’s most successful agricultural economies.
Though the farm seizures were popular with various groups both inside and outside Zimbabwe, and considered necessary for correcting a historical injustice, Mugabe was criticised for choosing to carry them out violently. Other African countries like Kenya and Namibia also redistributed or took over white settler farms after independence, but used legal instruments, not militias.
It is thought Mugabe chose the violent path to implicate wider sections of society in the seizure, and by using veterans, enabling them to be first in line to receive land parcels.
Most of the land, however, went to Mugabe’s cronies and family. And in recent months, as the economy tanked further, the government has said it will tax the land and that black owners would be required to contribute to compensating the white farmers who were thrown out.
These are deeply unpopular moves, among sections of veterans who feel that Mugabe and his inner circle have enriched themselves corruptly, and are trying to pull the ladder after stuffing their faces.
GAME OF THRONES
At a wider level, though, the split mirrors a pattern that has brought down or weakened dominant independence parties or liberation movement regimes in Africa. Kenya’s independence party, Kenya African National Union (KANU) lost power at the end of 2002 after 38 years mainly from an internal split.
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), that just suffered its worst political defeat since the 1994 end of apartheid in local elections, has been in decline since the ouster of president Thabo Mbeki in 2008, and the formation of Julius Malema’s splinter Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in 2013.
Mugabe’s face off with the veterans today is akin to a scene from the season 6 finale of the popular TV drama “Game of Thrones”.
The bloodthirsty, sadistic and unpredictable Ramsay Bolton, gets his comeuppance at the hands of his long-suffering wife Sansa Stark.
Beside castrations and skinning people alive, Ramsay also liked to kill his real and imaginary enemies by setting his fierce dogs upon them, much the same way Mugabe used the war veterans.
But finally, beaten in battle, bloodied and tied to a chair in a cell, his wife takes her revenge:
Sansa; “Our time together is about to come to an end…”
Bolton’s dogs growl in the background, and soon appear in the cell where he is tied to a chair.
Bolton; “My hounds will never harm me.”
Sansa; “You haven’t fed them in seven days. You said it yourself.”
Bolton; “They’re loyal beasts.”
Sansa; “They were. Now they’re starving.”
The dogs growl, attack, Ramsay screams, end of story.
Dogs need dog food. If you can’t or don’t feed them, you are better off putting them down.
Mugabe is unable to feed his, and it’s too perilous to try and put them down. His journey might well end like Ramsay Bolton’s.