Mugabe sets out to liquidate the opposition

The Guardian, March 7 1983

In the last few days, the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe has abandoned the task of reconciliation with its old rivals on which it based its political programme after independence three years ago.

What started as a police campaign against bandits in the South has now become an attempt to liquidate the main political opposition – Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU party – with both military and political force. Since January 2, the government’s Fifth Brigade has turned a 4,000 square mile area of Matabeleland, where ZAPU is based, into a killing ground. This weekend, the killing encroached for the first time on the provincial capital, Bulawayo.

As the strategy has hardened, the political rhetoric has changed. Yesterday I watched as a group of ministers from Harare spoke to local villagers in Hwange in the western part of Matabeleland.

The ministers from Harare sat on the podium. Across the baking football ground three thousand villagers sat in the stadium. The message came across loud and clear: “ZAPU must be liquidated.”

Until now the message from the Harare government has been more subtle: the enemy, who have been attacked with such ferocity over the last months, have been defined as “bandits and dissidents.” Now the government has shifted gear: the enemy is Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU party.

The people in the stadium live in the villages round Hwange in western Matabeleland, where the Harare government has created the killing zone which is now sealed off by the notorious Fifth Brigade.

Only a few kilometres away, a European aid worker spoke of the Fifth Brigade’s work: “It’s worse than the war. There was fighting everywhere then. Seven times I had guns stuck in my chest by one side or other. But the psychological aspect is worse now. Life is so cheap. The killings are often quite arbitrary. There is a feeling of deep panic.”

The ministers will have none of it. Enos Nkala, a powerful member of the cabinet defends the operation: “Since the dissidents use force we must meet them with superior force.”

He and four other ministers are touring Matabeleland trying to persuade the local Ndebele people who have tribal connections with Nkomo to desert ZAPU and to support the ruling ZANU party. Nkala is himself an Ndebele.

“I understand these people,” he said. “They are proud. I am proud. If they think you are weak, they will attack you. If they see you have strength and do not use it, they will fight you.”

For Nkala and the other ministers there is now no distinction between ‘dissident’ and ZAPU. ” If you liquidate ZAPU, then you have no problem with dissidents,” he said. “The battle will he fought here in Matabeleland. Military or political, it will he fought here. Nkomo will always be second best. There is nothing of the leader in him except his size.”

Nkala is one of the hawks in the Mugabe cabinet. He made no secret of the fact that he disagreed with the early attempts of the Prime Minister to work with Nkomo. Last month, the hawks won the argument and the Fifth Brigade went in.

With the military operation underway, the propaganda campaign has begun. The political repercussions are expected to follow. Mugabe has asked for a review of the constitution to examine the possibility of creating a one-party state.

“I’m not an admirer of outside ways. When we talk about a one-party state, we are talking about finding a model that belongs to Zimbabwe.”

The struggle between ZANU and ZAPU goes beyond the historical division between the two tribes on which their support is largely grounded – the Shona and the Ndebele. During the war for independence there was jealousy and acrimony between the party’s fighting arms – Zanla and Zipra.

Mugabe’s Zanla complained that Nkomo kept his troops in Zambia, away from the real fighting. Nkomo aroused bitter suspicion in 1978 by going to Lusaka in Zambia to negotiate secretly with the then leader of Rhodesia, Mr Ian Smith.

Since independence, Nkomo’s Ndebele people have complained that they are treated as underdogs by the new regime, that they are denied the best jobs, that Matabeleland gets less economic support than the Shona north.

The Shona for their part insist that the Ndebele have been conspiring with the South Africans to overthrow the government, or at the very least to make Matabeleland an independent state.

The discovery in February 1982 of arms caches led to a wave of detentions. Nkomo was sacked from the Cabinet. The campaign against him has gathered force ever since.

The struggle is being waged against a background of economic difficulty. Mugabe is fighting to reconcile his socialist and nationalist followers with an economy which is still predominently white-owned.

Some observers believe the Prime Minister wants to take on ZAPU not only to remove their political threat but also to distract his own supporters from the web of compromises on which his rule is based.