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15 December 2003

The judicious use of force

Zimbabwe faces a new threat of violence, and this time it is not coming from Mugabe.

By Peter Tatchell

The struggle to unseat President Robert Mugabe may be entering a new phase this month, following the emergence inside Zimbabwe of a clandestine group which says that it intends to change the government by force of arms.

In what it described as “communique number one”, the Zimbabwe Freedom Movement (ZFM) called on Mugabe to step down or be driven from office “by the judicious use of appropriate force”. It claimed to have arms caches and supporters ready across the country, and posted photographs on its website,, showing semi-automatic weapons, mortars, explosives and detonating devices.

After years in which the cause has been led by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a non-violent outfit frustrated by relentless official harassment and vote-rigging, an armed struggle of the kind this implies would take opposition to Mugabe to a different level. But communiques and photographs come cheap; should we take the ZFM seriously? I believe we should, and so should Mugabe.

The communique carried the names of Charles Black Mamba, the “national commander”, and Ntuthuko Fezela. These are real people. Black Mamba and Fezela are the noms de guerre of two serving army officers who are also veterans of the 1970s war of liberation, the former a one-time member of Mugabe’s guerrilla army, Zanla, and the latter of Joshua Nkomo’s Zipra. The third signatory was Daniel Ingwe, who is a serving police officer and a younger figure.

Besides demanding the resignations of Mugabe and all his ministers, they call for the restoration of human rights and the establishment of an interim government “consisting of reasonable persons from Zanu-PF, the MDC and other independent candidates or candidates from small opposition parties”. (Zanu-PF is Mugabe’s party.) The job of the interim government, said their communique, would be to prepare for early elections, which should be monitored by international observers.

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Opposition activists and observers of Zimbabwe are naturally sceptical about all of this, suggesting that the ZFM may be a sham or a front. Yet the timing, tactics and character of the initiative point to its authenticity, as does the response of the Mugabe government.

I know for a fact that planning for the launch of the ZFM has been going on for at least 18 months, having had contact last year with some of those behind it. I cannot personally vouch for how that time has been spent or say whether the supposed arms caches and underground cells are a reality, but I know at least that this is not an idea cooked up overnight.

I know, too, and so do most Zimbabweans, that this comes at a moment when peaceful opposition has never looked more hopeless. The MDC deserves praise for its efforts and its sacrifice, but, given the comprehensive rigging of parliamentary and presidential elections, its policy of seeking regime change through the ballot box is now bankrupt. Mass protests and stay-aways have been savagely suppressed and Mugabe’s secret police, the CIO, reign supreme. Indeed, the repression is getting worse; and it is now quite possible to envisage Mugabe, or some successor from within Zanu-PF, remaining in power for another ten or 20 years.

In this context, it should be no surprise that some inside Zimbabwe, and particularly those veterans of the war of liberation who have seen the ideals of that struggle so grotesquely betrayed, should be ready now to take the law into their own hands.

Moderates have expressed fears that the ZFM will be seen as the military wing of the MDC, and that its launch will provoke bloody reprisals from the government. But the bloody reprisals are happening already with total impunity, and it would be easy to understand somebody taking the view that they will continue indefinitely unless something dramatic is done. In any case, the ZFM leaders insist, both in their communique and in a covertly filmed video that I saw last month, that they have no party attachment and no designs on power – they merely want to clear the way for an interim government.

They also say that they will not carry out terrorist attacks, nor will they assassinate Mugabe; their aim is to target the president and his immediate cronies and ensure that they face trial for their crimes. The intention appears to be to foster distrust within the regime, sowing the idea that, at any time, army officers on whom Mugabe counts may surround him and bundle him into jail.

Another concern among sceptics is that the ZFM is a trick, a creation of the CIO conjured up as a pretext for another crackdown on the opposition. There is a precedent for this: the supposed existence of dissident groupings was given as the rationale for barbaric repression in Matabeleland during the 1980s.

But if the ZFM was set up by the CIO, why is it saying it won’t assassinate Mugabe? And why has the Zanu-PF spokesman, Nathan Shamuyarira, gone to great lengths to insist that the ZFM does not exist? Surely, if the aim were to justify a crackdown, he would have boasted that the government knew all about the ZFM and then announced plans to crush it?

Whether the ZFM can topple Mugabe, and whether it can do so with the economy of bloodshed for which it appears to be aiming, are open to speculation. One thing we do know is that the Mugabe regime will be a ruthless and determined enemy.

If it does come to violence – that is, if the Zimbabwean opposition really does resort to arms (something the Harare government has been doing for years) – it will be a tragedy. But after all these terrible years, we should not claim to be outraged by such a development, or even surprised.

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