General Chiwenga, reaching for history, missing the future
By Takura Zhangazha*
The recently published interview given by the Commander of Zimbabwe’s Defence Forces (ZDF) General Chiwenga to state controlled media was a politically significant one. Not only for the ruling party but more as an indicator of how the ZDF leadership perceives its role in Zimbabwe’s contemporary national politics as determined by their role in our then collective struggle for national liberation.
And for this, despite the fact that there are laws that protect his office from being ‘undermined in the interest of national defence and security’ any Zimbabwean citizen can safely claim to be publicly responding to what is tantamount to a public political statement from a serving commander of our national defence forces.
In fact, based on his statements issuing instructions to what he referred to as the ‘NGO’ that is the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) to ‘stop it’, he indicated that he was of the firm persuasion that he viewed the role of former liberation fighters such as himself as following the Maoist dictum, ‘politics always leads the gun’ in reference to the claims by ZNWLVA comrades that they have a right to determine who is President Mugabe’s successor.
The only problem with his assertion is that while it claims the sanctity of the liberation war, he is arguing after the horse has bolted.
Especially if one views his interview from the perspective of the conundrum that is Zanu Pf succession politics and factionalism which has claimed not only scalps of former liberation war fighters/veterans but also those that would be seen to be on the wrong side of the yet unknown succession wishes of his principal, President Robert Mugabe.
His interview is essentially a climb-down from his perceived power brokering role in the complexity that has become Zanu Pf succession politics. One would not be at fault for fairly observing it as a demonstration and declaration of loyalty to President Mugabe. As well as a reigning in of his comrades’ ambitious pretense to national political power from the ‘association’ or ‘NGO’ as he disparagingly refers to the ZNWLVA.
But because I do not have any vested interests in Zanu Pf succession politics or analyzing Chiwenga’s statements from that specific angle. Pursuing that path may make many lose focus on what Zimbabweans know or perceive to be the role of our national defence force commanders in politics while still serving in post independence Zimbabwe.
Before the emergence of the (still) main opposition party, the MDC(T), the military was and is still alleged to have been involved in unprofessional conduct during the infamous Gukurahundi period in the early 1980s. That this still remains in vogue is an indication of how the role of the defence forces tends to be publicly viewed as having played a politically partisan role in our national political processes.
But as far as the dictum of the politics following the gun goes, and with the statement attributed to President Mugabe as saying that Gukurahundi was a ‘moment of madness’ in our country, the defence forces can attempt to controversially and disputably claim that they were only following orders. A claim that is no longer enough of a defence at the International Criminal Court (as contested as its jurisdiction is).
Where the defence forces took an historically unprecedented turn was when in the year 2002 they claimed, in a publicized interview of the Joint Operations Command (JOC) under the command of the late national hero Vitalis Zvinavashe (aka Cde Gava) that they would not accept as president, a candidate who could win the then 2002 presidential elections who did not have liberation struggle credentials. This ostensibly meant they would not salute opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai who was the MDC-T presidential candidate for 2002.
It was this infamous statement that justified allegations of security service interference in presidential elections since then to present day. These allegations were also to culminate in the inconclusive 2008 harmonised elections and stemming therefrom SADC”s direct mediation into the Zimbabwean political crisis.
These same allegations have not gone away since then and probably will not as we approach the 2018 harmonised elections. More so after Chiwenga”s recent interview.
JOC had taken a very political position that has not been disputed from its own ranks as well as within the ZNLWVA.
And this is the catch. The war veterans who are in the professional army, based on Chiwenga’s interview remarks, can understand that they are above those that are no longer serving or have never served. It points to a double dilemma for war veterans in their holistic sense. This is especially after they, through their current national association’s leadership, have sought to directly declare themselves the custodians of the national state that emerged with independence.
In this, their basic strategy is to argue that the ‘nationalists’ i.e those that formed the initial nationalist parties but were not necessarily on the battlefronts of the struggle have had their turn at leadership of the nationalist liberation project. For them, though acknowledged with ambiguity in public, it is their turn to lead the same said national project. A position which is akin to ‘its our turn to eat’ the ‘fruits’ of national liberation by being successors to the current crop of nationalist leaders.
This might not be the view of Chiwenga, as his recent interview indicates, but it’s the whispered remnant political grievance of those that were at the front of not only the liberation war but also those that claim to have been critical for Zanu Pf”s disputed retention of political power in the aftermath of the 2008 initial electoral defeat to the MDC-T.
And their project is not a petty one. It has led to the firing of their current national leader Chris Mutsvangwa from cabinet and his replacement, retired Colonel Tshinga Dube playing the more cautious role in how he manages the association’s members. And has probably led to General Chiwenga instructing, via the state media, the ZNWVA spokesperson, Cde Mahiya to stop it.
The major problem is that Chiwenga, at least to those whom he says he commanded but are no longer serving in the defence forces (or never served at all) is that for them it is apparent that they do now want to be politically shortchanged. And they assume they have seen the worst of war, hence their defiant and at times not so politically conscious understanding of the workings of state power.
To revert to the key question of the role of the state’s defence forces even if their role has been historically intertwined with the liberation struggle. It is clear, again historically, that they need a reminder of the ‘ways of the guerrilla’ or as is told in Zimbabwean Maoist political parlance, ‘nzira dzemasoja’ that always at heart of their actions must be the general wishes of the people not their own.
Even if they still wield the gun and the people or ‘masi’ popular support’, they must succumb to that specific political will of the masses. Especially after they have been given a chance, as war veterans (not associations) to express their own historic contribution to not only the struggle but the post independence state that is contemporary Zimbabwe .
And General Chiwenga and his colleagues need to understand that in contemporary Zimbabwe, this popular will of the masses is best expressed through free and fair elections which they have no right to subvert directly or indirectly, especially because they fought for the same.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangzha.blogspot.com)