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Zanu PF’s Night of the Long Knives

By Alex T. Magaisa

“The Night of the Long Knives” is a political cliché that owes its origins to Hitler’s Nazi regime. It is employed to describe a situation in which events orchestrated by the leadership lead to a brutal purge of perceived opponents. Used often in politics, it can be employed in other contexts wherever power is contested.

Dr Alex Magaisa
Dr Alex Magaisa

When Hitler first used it, he was describing events in 1934, when perceived political figures in his regime whom he suspected of threatening his power, were ruthlessly rounded up and executed in cold blood.

The Night of the Long Knives is regarded as an important political episode that had far-reaching consequences, not only in Nazi Germany but across the world. It helps, for purposes of this article, to add that Hitler’s actions in purging perceived political enemies were encouraged by dossiers of information compiled by his subordinates, who also wanted to get rid of their own political opponents.

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History, as we know it, has a tendency of repeating itself, albeit in different guises and in different spaces of this world.

Fast-forward to 2014, in a small Southern African country on a plateau lodged between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. It is called Zimbabwe and its leader is Robert Mugabe. He has been in power for 34 years and has no intentions of quitting. He looks around and fears that some of his comrades are becoming too ambitious.

He fears they want to get rid of him. After all he is nearly 91 and the country he leads is in the dire-straits. He has used divide and rule tactics over the years, letting the factions fight each other, hate each other and plot against each other – itself a good insurance policy for himself as his rivals focus on each other.

Then one of the factions compiles a dossier against the other. They tell him that these people are too ambitious and that they want to remove him. Mugabe’s fears are confirmed and Zimbabwe’s own version of Night of the Long Knives begins.

One by one the alleged transgressors are removed. At least 6 elected party provincial chairmen have now been removed. Some youth chairmen and women’s league bosses, only recently elected have lost their positions, too.

Last night Zanu PF spokesperson, and veteran politician, Rugare Gumbo was suspended, a sentence which at his age is as good as an expulsion. A legislator, one Enock Porusingazi, was also suspended for 5 years. Another provincial chairman, John Mvundura was given a strong reprimand.

But by far the biggest scalp is Rugare Gumbo and some might say last night (Wednesday) was the Night of Long Knives. We think, however, that this was merely a harbinger of worse that awaits. The real Night of the Long Knives is not yet come. But it will.

Rugare Gumbo is by no means a footnote in the history of Zimbabwean politics. He has been there since the heady days of the liberation struggle. But this is not the first time that he has fallen foul of the party leadership.

In 1978, he, along with some of his comrades, was incarcerated by Zanu PF and spent the rest of the war days in dungeons after facing accusations of rebelling against Mugabe and the Zanu leadership.

This is the infamous incident that is known as the Vashandi Rebellion. Among his comrades who shared his fate were Dzinashe Machingura, Henry Hamadziripi, Happison Muchechetere, Augustine Chihuri, and Sobuza Gula-Ndebele.

Chihuri, then known as Steven Chocha, is now the Police Commissioner General, Gula-Ndebele is a former Attorney-General of Zimbabwe and Happison Mucheterere, then known as Harry Tanganeropa, was CEO of the ZBC before he was deposed this year.

When Dzino died earlier this year, Zanu PF did not confer hero status upon him, as is the tradition for liberation war commanders.

Gumbo did not attend the funeral, perhaps out of fear of the consequences of attending, but he described him as a hero nevertheless. Zanu PF had done exactly the same on Hamadziripi, when he died a few years ago.

But Gumbo, Chihuri, Muchechetere had been embraced, perhaps because they had repented and asked for forgiveness. Now, however, Muchechetere fell out of favour. What was packaged as a sacking on grounds of corruption was actually part of the political purge.

And last night, Gumbo fell on the sword. Déjà vu – he must feel that it is history repeating itself all over again. Only that unlike during their days in Mozambique there are no pits into which he will be thrown. But there is always the hellish outpost that is Matapi Police Station – who knows what might happen?

Nevertheless, it is plain that Gumbo is not the target. The big target remains Joice Mujuru, the Vice President who aspired to be President and was almost within reach. The sacking of such a figure as Rugare Gumbo, said to be the last surviving member of Zanu’s Dare reChimurenga (War Council), which drove the liberation war, is meant to be an indicator of where real power lies and that no figure apart from Mugabe himself is immune from the sack.

But in the context of  politics of succession, it is also part of the decimation of the political pillars for Mujuru. Gumbo has been one of her more prominent and vocal backers. He has defended her when she has been attacked by Grace Mugabe and others.

Jabulani Sibanda, former chairperson of the war veterans association is also another supporting pillar that has been removed. The 7 provincial chairpersons who have been removed were also supporting pillars for Mujuru. This is part of the systematic decimation of Mujuru pillars of support aimed at weakening her and also leaving her isolated and vulnerable.

But why all this? These are all pre-emptive strikes by Mugabe designed to ensure that Mujuru is not a candidate come the December congress in less than 3 weeks’ time.  The fear has always been that few would struggle to compete against or beat Mujuru in a contest.

And even if her rivals fancied their chances, elections by their nature are unpredictable, unless you control the elections  machinery.

The recent MDC-T Congress elections, which produced a huge shock to many when the unfancied Douglas Mwonzora with just one nomination upstaged the favourite Nelson Chamisa, who had amassed 11 nominations, would have confirmed the problem with elections for those opposed to Mujuru.

The idea is to ensure that she does not even contest in an election for the Vice Presidency, because of the fear that she could spring a surprise.

Further, if it is correct (and I emphasise, if it is correct) in terms of the Zanu PF Constitution, that for one to stand as a candidate for the VP post, they need the nomination of at least 6 provinces, this probably means, with chairmen loyal to Mujuru now ousted, her chances of getting a nomination have been whittled down significantly.

If this is the correct constitutional position, last night’s suspension of provincial chairpersons would seem to effectively end Mujuru’s bid even for the VP position, let alone the Presidency.

But whatever the case, the set of events that we might call, The Night of the Long Knives – Zimbabwe Style, has caused a seismic shift in power and advantage in the succession race, reducing Mujuru from a position of significant strength to a position of severe vulnerability.

And the architect and main beneficiary of all this is Mugabe himself. He is merely doing in dramatic form what he has been doing since he took over Zanu’s leadership in 1976. Back then, in 1978, Rugare Gumbo and his comrades were thrown into a pit for daring to challenge Mugabe. Now, Rugare Gumbo has stumbled again, on account of a similar alleged offence …

Dr Alex T Magaisa studied law at the University of Zimbabwe (LLB) and the University of Warwick (LLM & PhD) in Great Britain. He is a former adviser to the then Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Dr Magaisa has worked at the University Warwick, the University of Nottingham and is presently based at Kent Law School, the University of Kent. 

You can visit his blog: NewZimbabweConstitution.wordpress.com. You can email him on [email protected]yahoo.co.uk