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18 May 2015 10:54
Recently declassified documents allege that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was the architect of Matabeleland's mass killings in 1983. (Reuters)
New documents have come to light that implicate Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe in mass killings of Ndebele people in western Zimbabwe in January
Thousands of recently declassified documents that appear to expose the
perpetrators are now becoming available in a raft of foreign archival
collections. The documents are wide-ranging and include, among others,
diplomatic correspondence, intelligence assessments and raw intelligence
garnered by spies recruited from within the Zimbabwean government.
papers — augmented by the testimony of Zimbabwean witnesses finding courage in
old age — appear to substantiate what survivors and scholars have always
suspected but never been able to validate: Mugabe, then prime minister, was the
prime architect of killings that were well-planned and systematically executed.
The documents appear to show that the massacres were closely
associated with an effort by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party to eliminate opposition
groups in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s independence.
The little that Mugabe has said since the 1980s on this
taboo subject has been a mixture of obfuscation and denial. The closest he has
come to admitting any form of official responsibility was at the death of Nkomo
(1999), when he remarked that the early 1980s was a “moment of madness” — an
ambivalent statement that perhaps reflected a fear of Ngozi (avenging spirits)
more than anything else and one he has not repeated. More recently, he blamed
the killings on armed bandits who were allegedly co-ordinated by Zapu (the
original smokescreen) along with occasional indiscipline among soldiers of the
army’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade.
In the documents, his alleged co-conspirators tell a
different story. In doing so, they controvert theories that Mugabe was poorly
informed about the activities of errant subordinates. By March 1983, when news
of the atrocities had leaked, prompting Western ambassadors and others to ask
awkward questions, government ministers who were overseeing the operation
quickly pointed to Mugabe, documents allege. Sydney Sekeramayi, the minister in
Mugabe’s office with responsibility for defence, was one. In a conversation
with Cephas Msipa, one of the few remaining Zapu ministers of what had been a
government of national unity, Sekeramayi, said that “not only was Mugabe fully
aware of what was going on — what the Fifth Brigade was doing was under Mugabe’s
explicit orders”. Msipa later relayed this discussion to the Australian High
Commission, which in turn reported it to headquarters in Canberra.
’Crisis of conscience’Msipa appears to be a credible witness in view of his
amicable relationship with Mugabe. He had, for instance, shared a room with
Mugabe for two years during their earlier career as teachers. Msipa had also
welcomed Mugabe into his home when the latter returned from Ghana in 1960 and
joined the struggle against white rule. Between 1980 and 1982, when tensions
were rising between Zapu and Zanu, Msipa had served as a regular go-between and
had spoken to Mugabe often. He continued to do so during the killings. Within
Zapu, Msipa, a Shona-speaker, had consistently advocated amalgamation with
Zanu, a line that had attracted the ire of Ndebele-speaking colleagues. He was,
therefore, considerably more sympathetic to Zanu and its leader than most in
Zapu. And yet, after speaking to Sekeramayi and others in Zanu, he was
convinced (as he told the Australians) that “the prime minister was right
behind what had been happening in Matabeleland”. He added that he had never
before had such a “crisis of my conscience” about remaining in government.
Sekeramayi was more circumspect in direct discussions with
Western representatives, but nevertheless made clear that the massacres were no
accident. The “army had had to act ‘hard’”, he told the British defence
attaché, “but … the situation was now under control”. Later, Sekeramayi
admitted to the British high commissioner that “there had been atrocities”.
The documents also record that Msipa talked to other members
of Zanu who revealed that the killings were not simply the whim of a small
coterie, but the result of a formal and broad-based decision by the leadership
of Zanu-PF. Eddison Zvobgo, a member of Zanu’s 20-member policy-making body,
spoke of a “decision of the central committee that there had to be a ‘massacre’
of Ndebeles”. That statement squared precisely with Fifth Brigade’s ethnocentric
modus operandi. Mugabe’s heir apparent, the current first vice-president,
Emmerson Mnangagwa, was a member of the central committee. But so, too, were
others who have subsequently developed a reputation for moderation, not least
because of their latter-day rivalry with Mnangagwa. Former vice-president Joice
Mujuru heads that list.
The army commanders who directed the killings, many of whom
still retain key positions in a security sector that underwrites the regime,
are also shown in the documents to have been eager accomplices. Zvobgo
commented that the first commander of Fifth Brigade, Perence Shiri, had said the
“politicians should leave it to us” with regard to “settling things in
Shiri is now the head of Zimbabwe’s air force.
Testimony from witnesses provides evidence that Shiri worked
closely with many former members of Mugabe’s guerilla army, Zanla,
notwithstanding a myth that Fifth Brigade operated separately from the rest of the
army. Those who assisted Shiri allegedly included the now chief of Zimbabwe’s
defence forces, Constantine Chiwenga, who was this month awarded a doctorate in
ethics by the University of KwaZulu–Natal. During the killings, Shiri
frequently consulted with Chiwenga, who was then using the nom de guerre
Dominic Chinenge and was head of First Brigade based in Bulawayo. Chiwenga’s unit
also provided a range of practical assistance, including logistical support for
Fifth Brigade and a base from which Shiri’s men operated when they made punitive
raids on Bulawayo’s townships.
The first six weeks of Fifth Brigade’s attacks were massive in
their intensity, but the documentary record shows that an order was given to
curtail this phase after news of the massacres began to leak to the outside
world. However, the killing did not end, but was instead scaled back and
conducted in a more covert manner.
Estimates of the death toll are frequently put at 20 000, a
figure first mooted by Nkomo when the campaign was still under way. But
on-the-ground surveys have been piecemeal and vast areas of Matabeleland remain
under-researched. Fear and the death of many witnesses provide further
challenges. A forensically-accurate number will never be possible, yet it seems
possible that the standard estimate is too conservative. Oral testimony from
Zimbabweans who were in key government positions during the 1980s disinters a
host of killings that were previously unknown. Cumulatively, this testimony
suggests that the breadth of the violence and the extent of official
involvement could have been significantly underestimated.
Polite questionsObservers have always wondered how much of this was known to
Western governments — and what they did about it. It is clear from the documents
that they knew a great deal, even if some of the detail remained obscure. It is
also clear that the polite questions asked by diplomats were — along with
courageous representations by churchmen and their allies in Zimbabwe — pivotal to
the government’s decision to reduce the violence. Up to that point, there was
no indication that the brutal force of the massacres would be curtailed.
Nevertheless, Western governments did little once the massacres were brought
down to a lower, but still savage, intensity. Perhaps as a sign that Western
censure had its limits, the campaign in Matabeleland North continued during the
remainder of 1983; Fifth Brigade was redeployed further south in 1984.
It is a fact that the Western response to violence toward
black countrymen in the 1980s was a pale shadow of the reaction to his attack
on white farmers in 2000. Many Ndebele remain bitter about this inconsistency.
While historians debate the dimensions of Zanu’s violence, for Western
policy-makers and the domestic constituencies that are meant to hold them to
account there’s a need to reflect again on the price of inconsistency in the
developing world. Aside from the human cost, Western advocacy of democracy and
international justice will continue to be viewed with skepticism while such
glaring contradictions remain.
At the same time, an inordinate focus on the international
dimensions of the Matabeleland massacres is to miss the point. Mugabe has
instinctively sought to racialise and internationalise internal controversies
of which he is the principal author or to invoke the spectre of neocolonialism
in the hope of support from fellow African leaders.
Zimbabwe’s Second Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko recently
made the claim that the Matabeleland massacres were a “conspiracy of the West”
and that Mugabe had nothing to do with them. Yet the new documentary material
appears to underline once more that post-independence Zimbabwe’s greatest
crimes and deepest wounds lie squarely at the feet of Mugabe and Zanu-PF. The
documents appear to show that the killings were an internal affair, neither
provoked nor sustained by outsiders, and that the atrocities were driven from
the top by Zanu-PF in pursuit of specific political objectives. Viewed across a
period of several years and hundreds of files, the documents appear to provide
evidence that — far from being a “moment of madness” in which supporters of rival
parties went at each other — the massacres were but one component of a sustained
and strategic effort to remove all political opposition within five years of
independence, as Zanu leaders were determined to secure a “victory” against
nonexistent opposition in elections scheduled for 1985, after which there
would be a “mandate” from the people to impose a one-party state. —
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