Thousands of historical documents are becoming available in a raft of foreign archival collections. The documents are wide-ranging and allege what survivors and scholars have always suspected but never been able to validate: Robert Mugabe, then Prime Minister, was the prime architect of Matabeleland’s mass killings that were well-planned and systematically executed.
By Stuart Doran for the Daily Maverick
From January 1983, a campaign of terror was waged against the Ndebele people in Matabeleland in western Zimbabwe. The so-called Gukurahundi massacres remain the darkest period in the country’s post-independence history, when more than 20,000 civilians were killed by Robert Mugabe’s feared Fifth Brigade.
No one has accepted the blame for the violence, but the recent release of historical documents has shed new light on those responsible.
The wide-ranging reports include diplomatic correspondence, intelligence assessments and raw intelligence garnered by spies recruited from within the Zimbabwean government.
These papers – augmented by my investigations and the testimony of Zimbabwean witnesses – appear to substantiate what survivors and scholars have always suspected: Mugabe, then prime minister, was the prime architect of well-planned and systematically executed mass killings.
The documents, which include recently declassified cables from the Australian high commission, reinforce the view that Gukurahundi – a Shona word for the spring rains that sweep away dry season chaff – was closely associated with Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party’s efforts to eliminate opposition groups after independence in 1980.
Zapu, a party led by nationalist rival Joshua Nkomo, represented the main obstacle. Zapu enjoyed overwhelming support among the Ndebele and was seen as an impediment by the leadership of Zanu-PF. In the words of Mugabe, the people of Matabeleland needed to be “re-educated.
‘Mugabe’s explicit orders’
The little that Mugabe has said since the 1980s has been a mixture of obfuscation and denial. The closest he has come to admitting official responsibility was after the death of Nkomo in 1999, when he described the early 1980s as a “moment of madness” – an ambivalent statement not since repeated.
In a recent interview with South African talk-show host Dali Tambo, he blamed the Gukurahundi killings on armed bandits coordinated by Zapu and a few subordinate, North Korean trained, Fifth Brigade soldiers. But recorded correspondence from his colleagues tells a different story.
By March 1983 news of the atrocities had leaked, prompting western ambassadors to ask questions of government ministers. Some, said to include defence minister of defence Sydney Sekeramayi, quickly pointed to Mugabe.
In a conversation with Cephas Msipa, one of the few remaining Zapu ministers of what had been a government of national unity, Sekeramayi reportedly said that “not only was Mugabe fully aware of what was going on” but the Fifth Brigade was operating “under Mugabe’s explicit orders”. Msipa later relayed this discussion to the Australian high commission, who reported back to its headquarters in Canberra.
Msipa’s credibility as a witness is strengthened by his amicable relationship with Mugabe. The pair had shared a room for two years during their earlier career as teachers and Msipa had welcomed Mugabe into his home when he returned from Ghana in 1960 to join the struggle against white rule.
Within Zapu, Msipa, a Shona-speaker, had consistently advocated amalgamation with Zanu-PF – earning him the ire of Ndebele-speaking colleagues – and was considerably more sympathetic to Zanu-PF and its leader than others in his party.
‘Crisis of conscience’
Between 1980 and 1982, when tensions were rising between Zapu and Zanu-PF, Msipa had been in regular contact with Mugabe. This continued during the killings.
But yet, after speaking to Sekeramayi and others in Zanu-PF, he was convinced – as he told the Australians – that “the prime minister was right behind what had been happening in Matabeleland”. Never before had he had such a “crisis of my conscience” about remaining in government, he said.
Sekeramayi was more circumspect in direct diplomatic discussions but made it 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”. He later admitted to the British high commissioner that “there had been atrocities”.
The documents also show that Msipa talked to other members of Zanu-PF, who claimed the killings were the result of a formal, broad-based decision by the leadership.
Eddison Zvobgo, a member of the party’s 20-member policy-making group, spoke of a “decision of the central committee that there had to be a ‘massacre’ of Ndebeles”.
Army commanders who directed the killings, many of whom still retain key positions in government, are shown in the documents to have been eager accomplices.
Zvobgo claimed that the first, Fifth Brigade commander , Perence Shiri, had said the “politicians should leave it to us” with regard to “settling things in Matabeleland”.
Shiri is now head of Zimbabwe’s air force.
The first six weeks of Fifth Brigade’s attacks were massive in their intensity but, as the documents show, an order was given for them to be curtailed after news had leaked to the outside world.
The killing did not end but was scaled back and conducted more covertly.
Estimates of the death toll are frequently put at 20,000, a figure first mooted by Nkomo at the time, but on-the-ground surveys were piecemeal and vast areas of Matabeleland remain under-researched. Ongoing fear and the death of witnesses provide further challenges.
Whilst a forensically accurate number will never be possible, evidence suggests that the standard estimate is conservative.
Oral testimony from Zimbabweans in key government positions during the 1980s disinters a host of killings that were previously unknown. Cumulatively, it suggests that the breadth of the violence, along with the extent of official involvement, was significantly underestimated.
Survivors, scholars and other Zimbabweans have always questioned the extent of western governments’ knowledge. Evidence suggests that they knew a great deal and that diplomatic interventions were pivotal to the Zimbabwean decision to reduce the violence.
Nevertheless, western governments did little once the scale of massacres were dialled down to a lower, but still savage, intensity. The campaign continued in the north of Matabeleland during the remainder of 1983 with Fifth Brigade troops re-deployed to the south in 1984.
The western response to violence against black countrymen in the 1980s was a pale shadow of the reaction to attacks on white farmers in 2000. Many Ndebele remain bitter about this inconsistency.
At the same time, to put too much emphasis on the international dimension of the Matabeleland massacres would be to miss the point. Mugabe has repeatedly used the charge of neo-colonialism to cover his misdemeanours in the hope of garnering support from fellow African leaders.
Zimbabwe’s second vice-president Phelekezela Mphoko recently claimed that the Matabeleland massacres were a “conspiracy of the west”, with nothing to do with Mugabe. Yet the evidence appears to suggest otherwise.
The documents point to internal killings neither provoked nor sustained by outsiders, suggesting that the atrocities were driven from the top by Zanu-PF in pursuit of specific political objectives.
Viewed across a period of several years, the documents appear to provide evidence that the massacres were but one component of a sustained and strategic effort to remove all political opposition within five years of independence. Zanu-PF leaders were determined to secure a “victory” against a non-existent opposition in elections scheduled for 1985, after which there would be a “mandate” from the people to impose a one-party state.
Dr Stuart Doran is an independent historian and author of the forthcoming book Kingdom, power, glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the quest for supremacy, 1960–87. A version of this article first appeared on Daily Maverick