Gukurahundi truth comes to light

Scorpion in the firewood: new documents reveal Mugabe’s complicity in 1980s genocide.


The Ndebele people of western Zimbabwe have a proverb, walutheza olule nkume, which, roughly translated, means “a person picked up firewood in which there was a scorpion, and now the scorpion is out to bite him.” An English equivalent would be “the chickens have come home to roost.”

Yet when it comes to justice for Zimbabweans who have suffered under the heel of President Robert Mugabe since 1980, the saying rings hollow. And none yearn for justice more than the Ndebele. From January 1983, a campaign of genocide was waged against them, an outbreak of obscene violence that remains the darkest period in the country’s post-independence history, notwithstanding the bloody notoriety of the last decade-and-a-half.

But the truth, at least, is now coming to light.

Thousands of historical documents that expose the perpetrators are now becoming available in a raft of foreign archival collections.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. These papers—augmented by the testimony of Zimbabwean witnesses finding courage in old age—substantiate what survivors and scholars have always suspected but never been able to validate: Mugabe, then Prime Minister, was the prime architect of mass killings that were well-planned and systematically executed.

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. Zapu, a party led by nationalist rival, Joshua Nkomo, represented the main obstacle to that objective. Given that Zapu enjoyed overwhelming support among Ndebele, the Ndebele as a whole came to be seen as an impediment. In the words of Mugabe, the people of Matabeleland needed to be “re-educated”.

The little that Mugabe has said since the 1980s on this taboo subject has been a typical mixture of obfuscation and denial. The closest he has come to admitting any form of official responsibility was at the death of Nkomo, 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 coordinated by Zapu (the original smokescreen) along with occasional indiscipline among soldiers of the army’s North Korean-trained 5 Brigade.

In the documents, his co-conspirators tell a different story. In doing so, they controvert ill-founded 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. 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 5th 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.

Msipa was 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”.

Meanwhile, 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 5 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 the hated 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 to have been eager accomplices. Zvobgo commented that the first commander of 5 Brigade, Perence Shiri, had said the “politicians should leave it to us” with regard to “settling things in Matabeleland.”

Shiri is now the head of Zimbabwe’s air force.

Other evidence demonstrates that Shiri worked closely with many former members of Mugabe’s guerilla army, Zanla, notwithstanding a myth that 5 Brigade operated separately from the rest of the army. Those who assisted Shiri 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 1 Brigade based in Bulawayo. Chiwenga’s unit also provided a range of practical assistance, including logistical support for 5 Brigade and a base from which Shiri’s men operated when they made punitive raids on Bulawayo’s townships.

Together with other former Zanla cadres who shared common experiences and common hatreds, the pair were intimately involved in an apparent attempt to obliterate the Ndebele from the face of the earth. The first six weeks of 5 Brigade’s pogrom were genocidal 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 underway. 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 likely 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 has been significantly underestimated.

Observers have always wondered how much of this was known to Western governments—and what they did about it. It is clear 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 genocidal 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. Mugabe was quick to recognize the limits of Western censure, continuing with the campaign in Matabeleland North during the remainder of 1983 and re-deploying 5 Brigade further south in 1984.

It is a fact that the Western response to Mugabe’s genocidal 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, Western policy-makers and the domestic constituencies that are meant to hold them to account would do well 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 specter of neo-colonialism in the hope of support from fellow African leaders. In a transparent attempt to emulate his master, Zimbabwe’s Second Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko recently made the absurd claim that the massacres were “conspiracy of the West” and that Mugabe had nothing to do with them. In Zimbabwe, history is not just written by the victors, it is written by the perpetrators and their acolytes.

Yet the new documentary material underlines once more that post-independence Zimbabwe’s greatest crimes and deepest wounds lie squarely at the feet of Mugabe and Zanu (PF). The killings were a thoroughly internal affair. They were neither provoked nor sustained by outsiders. From start to finish, 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 provide overwhelming 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 annihilate all political opposition within five years of independence. Zanu leaders were determined to secure a “victory” against non-existent opposition in elections scheduled for 1985, after which there would be a “mandate” from the people to impose a one-party state.

This abhorrence of all forms of opposition—and the relentless violence with which Zanu (PF) pursued supremacy—also provide the key to understanding the disaster that enveloped Zimbabwe at the turn of the century. The fall of communism in the early 1990s may have eviscerated Zanu’s plans for a constitutionally-sanctioned single party state, but the ideology remained the same. When Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change posed a threat to Zanu’s suzerainty in 2000, Mugabe and his cohorts did not hesitate to wreak violence on the opposition and its support base, even if it meant the destruction of the economy. It was, after all, a small step for men who had already committed genocide in pursuit of unfettered power.

Stuart Doran is an independent historian and author of a forthcoming book based on the new documentary material—Kingdom, power, glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the quest for supremacy, 1960–87.

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