Zimbabwe’s Coltart Says Mnangagwa Acts ‘in Concert’ With Army

Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is working with the military to ensure his own survival, an opposition official said, dismissing the leader’s criticism of the army’s heavy-handed approach in quelling riots over fuel prices in January.

  • Opposition leader Coltart dismisses leaders criticism of army
  •  Coltart says Mnangagwa depends on military for survival
Protesters demonstrate against rising fuel prices near Harare in January.
Protesters demonstrate against rising fuel prices near Harare in January. Photographer: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP via Getty Images

The protests, the worst since 1995, ended after the military was deployed, firing on crowds and killing at least 17 people. Since then the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and human rights groups have said soldiers have been carrying out raids on houses in poorer areas of the country’s biggest cities and have been accused of beatings and rapes. Mnangagwa, who became president after a military coup in 2017 ousted Robert Mugabe and then won an election last year, said on Jan. 22 that “heads will roll” if soldiers were guilty of misconduct.

“Mnangagwa, like Mugabe, is primarily concerned with survival,” David Coltart, a lawyer and founding member of the MDC, said at an event hosted by the Free Market Foundation in Johannesburg on Wednesday. “Mnangagwa and his senior generals are acting in concert. I don’t believe there is dissent between Mnangagwa and the military. They have common purpose.”

The comments by Coltart, the MDC’s legal secretary, contradict assertions by some senior military and government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. They say the Zimbabwean leader is being defied by a number of army officials as he tries to bring the country and its broken economy back into the international fold by pledging a more open and tolerant society than was the case under Mugabe.

While Mnangagwa had initially “kept up the facade,” he has now created “a climate of fear” by intimidating doctors and lawyers who helped protesters in the January riots and is using threatening language in public speeches that was last heard during massacres of the minority Ndebele ethnic group in the 1980s, Coltart said.

“When the president said ‘heads will roll’ he meant every word,” Nick Mangwana, Zimbabwe’s secretary for information, said by text message, referring to action against the military. “We have seen the immediate retirement of senior commanders since that promise. We have seen soldiers convicted and imprisoned,” he said. “What we witnessed is heads rolling.”

The military has played a prominent role in Zimbabwe politics since independence from the U.K. in 1980. It helped keep Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front in power in 2008 when then MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai backed out of a presidential runoff vote after hundreds of his supporters were killed by armed militias, the top MDC leader said.

Protesters Killed

“The military was a very powerful component of Zanu-PF,” Coltart said. “They were fused.”

Few, if any officials, have been punished for the massacres in the 1980s, the 2008 election violence and the killing of protesters after elections in August last year and in January, he said.

“What afflicts Zimbabwe is the culture of impunity,” Coltart said, adding that western nations as well as neighboring South Africa have prioritized stability over democracy and have been reticent to act against alleged abuses.

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