Fifth Brigade in Zimbabwe: A brief summary

The Fifth Brigade was a formation of Zimbabwean soldiers. The Fifth Brigade was formed in 1981 and disbanded in 1988 amid allegations of brutality and murder during the Brigade’s occupation of Matabeleland. It was reformed later and was active until at least 2006.

Air Marshall Perrance Shiri

Training

In October 1980, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe signed an agreement with the North Korean President, Kim Il Sung, that they would train and equip a brigade for the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA). In August 1981, 106 North Koreans arrived to train the new brigade.

The members of the Fifth Brigade were drawn from 3,500 former troops of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), including two unintegrated ZANLA battalions, at Tongogara Assembly Point. There were a few Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) troops in the unit initially, but they were withdrawn before the end of the training.

It has been reported that there were also some foreigners in the unit, possibly Tanzanians. The training of the Fifth Brigade lasted until September 1982, when Minister Sekeramayi announced training was complete.

Background

The first Commander of the Fifth Brigade was Colonel Perence Shiri. The Fifth Brigade was different from all other army units in that it was not integrated into the army. It answered only to the Prime Minister, and not to the normal army command structures.

Zanu-PF fighters pictured in 1980. (Photograph: Brian Harris//Rex/Shutterstock)
Zanu-PF fighters pictured in 1980. (Photograph: Brian Harris//Rex/Shutterstock)

Their codes, uniforms, radios and equipment were not compatible with other army units. Their most distinguishing feature in the field was their red berets, although many reports note that on occasions Fifth Brigade soldiers would operate in civilian clothes. Mugabe was also responsible and ordered Sekeramayi to announce that the training was over.

Fighting

In the elections of February 1980, Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) won a landslide victory and Mugabe became Zimbabwe’s second black prime minister (after Abel Muzorewa).

Mugabe, whose political support came from his Shona-speaking tribal homeland in the north, attempted to build Zimbabwe on a basis of an uneasy coalition with his Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) rivals, whose support came mostly from the Ndebele-speaking south, Matabeleland, and with whites.

Mugabe sought to incorporate ZAPU into his ZANU–led government and ZAPU’s military wing into the army; and ZAPU’s leader, Joshua Nkomo, was given a series of cabinet positions in Mugabe’s government. However, the new prime minister was torn between this objective and pressures to meet the expectations of his own ZANU followers for a faster pace of social change.

Around this time, ex-ZANLA and ZIPRA troops awaiting demobilization or integration into the new national army also clashed in Bulawayo and other areas. Sometimes these clashes had civilian casualties as some of the ex-guerilla units were stationed in cantonments adjacent to residential areas.

An abortive ZAPU rebellion and discontent in Matabeleland spelled the end for this uneasy coalition. In 1982 Mugabe dismissed Nkomo from his cabinet, which triggered bitter fighting between ZAPU supporters in the Ndebele-speaking region of the country and the ruling ZANU.

Civil war in the mid-1980’s

Between 1983 and 1987 the Fifth Brigade brutally crushed any resistance in Matabeleland and many atrocities were committed. Over 10,000 civilians died and were buried in mass graves.

The intensity of their actions during the mid-1980s is associated with a specific Shona word: Gukurahundi. This is most simply translated as “the rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains.” Wikipedia