Mugabe’s complicity in Gukurahundi

THE Ndebele people of western Zimbabwe have a proverb, walutheza olule nkume, which, roughly translated, means “A person picked up firewood in which there was a scorpion, and now the scorpion is out to bite him.” An English equivalent would be: “The chickens have come home to roost.”


Yet when it comes to justice for Zimbabweans who have suffered under the heel of President Robert Mugabe since 1980, the saying rings hollow. And none yearn for justice more than the Ndebele. From January 1983, a campaign of genocide was waged against them, an outbreak of obscene violence that remains the darkest period in the country’s post-independence history, notwithstanding the bloody notoriety of the last decade-and-a-half.

But the truth, at least, is now coming to light. Thousands of historical documents that expose the perpetrators are now becoming available in a raft of foreign archival collections. The documents are wide-ranging and include, among others, diplomatic correspondence, intelligence assessments and raw intelligence garnered by spies recruited from within the Zimbabwean government.

These papers—augmented by the testimony of Zimbabwean witnesses finding courage in old age—substantiate what survivors and scholars have always suspected but never been able to validate: Mugabe, then Prime Minister, was the prime architect of mass killings that were well-planned and systematically executed.

The massacres were closely associated with an effort by Mugabe’s Zanu PF party to eliminate opposition groups in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s independence. Zapu, a party led by nationalist rival Joshua Nkomo, represented the main obstacle to that objective. Given that Zapu enjoyed overwhelming support among Ndebele, the Ndebele as a whole came to be seen as an impediment. In the words of Mugabe, the people of Matabeleland needed to be “re-educated”.

The little that Mugabe has said since the 1980s on this taboo subject has been a typical mixture of obfuscation and denial. The closest he has come to admitting any form of official responsibility was at the death of Nkomo, when he remarked that the early 1980s was a “moment of madness”—an ambivalent statement that perhaps reflected a fear of ngozi (avenging spirits) more than anything else and one he has not repeated. More recently, he blamed the killings on armed bandits who were allegedly coordinated by Zapu (the original smokescreen) along with occasional indiscipline among soldiers of the army’s North Korean-trained 5 Brigade.

In the documents, his co-conspirators tell a different story. In doing so, they controvert ill-founded theories that Mugabe was poorly informed about the activities of errant subordinates.

By March 1983, when news of the atrocities had leaked, prompting Western ambassadors and others to ask awkward questions, government ministers who were overseeing the operation quickly pointed to Mugabe.

Sydney Sekeramayi, the minister in Mugabe’s office with responsibility for Defence, was one. In a conversation with Cephas Msipa, one of the few remaining Zapu ministers of what had been a government of national unity, Sekeramayi said that “not only was Mugabe fully aware of what was going on—what the 5th Brigade was doing was under Mugabe’s explicit orders”. Msipa later relayed this discussion to the Australian High Commission, which in turn reported it to headquarters in Canberra.

Msipa was a credible witness in view of his amicable relationship with Mugabe. He had, for instance, shared a room with Mugabe for two years during their earlier career as teachers. Msipa had also welcomed Mugabe into his home when the latter returned from Ghana in 1960 and joined the struggle against white rule. Between 1980 and 1982, when tensions were rising between Zapu and Zanu, Msipa had served as a regular go-between and had spoken to Mugabe often.

He continued to do so during the killings. Within Zapu, Msipa, a Shona-speaker, had consistently advocated amalgamation with Zanu, a line that had attracted the ire of Ndebele-speaking colleagues. He was, therefore, considerably more sympathetic to Zanu and its leader than most in Zapu. And yet, after speaking to Sekeramayi and others in Zanu, he was convinced (as he told the Australians) that “the Prime Minister was right behind what had been happening in Matabeleland”. He added that he had never before had such a “crisis of my conscience” about remaining in government.

Sekeramayi was more circumspect in direct discussions with Western representatives, but nevertheless made 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”. Later, Sekeramayi admitted to the British High Commissioner that “there had been atrocities”.

Meanwhile, Msipa talked to other members of Zanu who revealed that the killings were not simply the whim of a small coterie, but the result of a formal and broad-based decision by the leadership of Zanu PF.

Eddison Zvobgo, a member of Zanu’s 20-member policymaking body, spoke of a “decision of the Central Committee that there had to be a ‘massacre’ of Ndebeles”. That statement squared precisely with 5 Brigade’s ethnocentric modus operandi. Mugabe’s heir apparent, the current Vice- President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was a member of the Central Committee. But so, too, were others who have subsequently developed a reputation for moderation, not least because of their latter-day rivalry with the hated Mnangagwa. Former Vice-President Joice Mujuru heads that list.

The army commanders who directed the killings, many of whom still retain key positions in a security sector that underwrites the regime, are also shown to have been eager accomplices. Zvobgo commented that the first commander of 5 Brigade, Perence Shiri, had said the “politicians should leave it to us” with regard to “settling things in Matabeleland”.

Shiri is now the head of Zimbabwe’s air force.

Other evidence demonstrates that Shiri worked closely with many former members of Mugabe’s guerilla army, Zanla, notwithstanding a myth that 5 Brigade operated separately from the rest of the army. Those who assisted Shiri included the now chief of Zimbabwe’s defence forces, Constantine Chiwenga, who – incredibly – was this month awarded a doctorate in ethics by the University of KwaZulu–Natal. During the killings, Shiri frequently consulted with Chiwenga, who was then using the nom de guerre Dominic Chinenge and was head of 1 Brigade based in Bulawayo. Chiwenga’s unit also provided a range of practical assistance, including logistical support for 5 Brigade and a base from which Shiri’s men operated when they made punitive raids on Bulawayo’s townships.

Together with other former Zanla cadres who shared common experiences and common hatreds, the pair were intimately involved in an apparent attempt to obliterate the Ndebele from the face of the earth.
The first six weeks of 5 Brigade’s pogrom were genocidal in their intensity, but the documentary record shows that an order was given to curtail this phase after news of the massacres began to leak to the outside world. However, the killing did not end, but was instead scaled-back and conducted in a more covert manner.

Estimates of the death toll are frequently put at 20 000, a figure first mooted by Nkomo when the campaign was still underway. But on-the-ground surveys have been piecemeal and vast areas of Matabeleland remain under-researched. Fear and the death of many witnesses provide further challenges.

A forensically-accurate number will never be possible, yet it seems likely that the standard estimate is too conservative. Oral testimony from Zimbabweans who were in key government positions during the 1980s disinters a host of killings that were previously unknown. Cumulatively, this testimony suggests that the breadth of the violence and the extent of official involvement have been significantly underestimated.

Observers have always wondered how much of this was known to Western governments—and what they did about it. It is clear that they knew a great deal, even if some of the detail remained obscure. It is also clear that the polite questions asked by diplomats were—along with courageous representations by churchmen and their allies in Zimbabwe—pivotal to the government’s decision to reduce the violence. Up to that point, there was no indication that the genocidal force of the massacres would be curtailed.

Nevertheless, Western governments did little once the massacres were brought down to a lower, but still savage, intensity. Mugabe was quick to recognise the limits of Western censure, continuing with the campaign in Matabeleland North during the remainder of 1983 and re-deploying 5 Brigade further south in 1984.
It is a fact that the Western response to Mugabe’s genocidal violence toward black countrymen in the 1980s was a pale shadow of the reaction to his attack on white farmers in 2000. Many Ndebele remain bitter about this inconsistency.

While historians debate the dimensions of Zanu’s violence, Western policymakers and the domestic constituencies that are meant to hold them to account would do well to reflect again on the price of inconsistency in the developing world. Aside from the human cost, Western advocacy of democracy and international justice will continue to be viewed with scepticism while such glaring contradictions remain.

At the same time, an inordinate focus on the international dimensions of the Matabeleland massacres is to miss the point.

Mugabe has instinctively sought to racialise and internationalise internal controversies of which he is the principal author or to invoke the spectre of neo-colonialism in the hope of support from fellow African leaders. In a transparent attempt to emulate his master, Zimbabwe’s
Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko recently made the absurd claim that the massacres were a “conspiracy of the West” and that Mugabe had nothing to do with them.
In Zimbabwe, history is not just written by the victors, it is written by the perpetrators and their acolytes.

Yet the new documentary material underlines once more that post-independence Zimbabwe’s greatest crimes and deepest wounds lie squarely at the feet of Mugabe and Zanu PF.
The killings were a thoroughly internal affair. They were neither provoked nor sustained by outsiders. From start to finish, the atrocities were driven from the top by Zanu PF in pursuit of specific political objectives.

Viewed across a period of several years and hundreds of files, the documents provide overwhelming evidence that—far from being a “moment of madness” in which supporters of rival parties went at each other— the massacres were but one component of a sustained and strategic effort to annihilate all political opposition within five years of independence.

Zanu leaders were determined to secure a “victory” against non-existent opposition in elections scheduled for 1985, after which there would be a “mandate” from the people to impose a one-party state.

This abhorrence of all forms of opposition—and the relentless violence with which Zanu PF pursued supremacy—also provide the key to understanding the disaster that enveloped Zimbabwe at the turn of the century. The fall of communism in the early 1990s may have eviscerated Zanu’s plans for a constitutionally-sanctioned single-party state, but the ideology remained the same.

When Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change posed a threat to Zanu’s suzerainty in 2000, Mugabe and his cohorts did not hesitate to wreak violence on the opposition and its support base, even if it meant the destruction of the economy.

It was, after all, a small step for men who had already committed genocide in defence of power.

Dr Stuart Doran is an independent historian and author of a forthcoming book based on the new documentary material—Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and The Quest For Supremacy, 1960–87. This article originally appeared in the Daily Maverick 

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  1. Interesting indeed. One thing that buffles my mind is bob maintains that zapu was preparing for a civil war and were amassing weapons yet there was never one shred of evidence of the so called ”weapons caches” not one! This confirms what we know of already and the most reasonable thing now is for bob and company to openly admit to their unwarranted killings. That is why he wants to die in power, in 2008 he clearly lost elections and manage to wrestle power from the mdc and in the end killed atlease 2000 opposition supporters.

    The article laments lack of response from western countries yet it doesnt question the very same lack of response by African countries…especially from 2000 bob has been a repeat offender with out a peep of condemnation from our African counterparts….

    bob and company need to face the music and be jailed for these atrocities period.

  2. Interesting. One thing that buffles my mind is that bob claimed zapu were preparing for a civil war yet not a single shred of evidence was ever produced, especially when the so-called ”arms caches” were found. Gukurahundi was genocide simple and kla. 2008 mdc supporters were k-i-lled when mdc got 73% of the vote….bob and company know that if they lose presidency before d-e-ath then it’s straight to prison.

    The article laments lack of response from western countries but not from african countries. African countries are just useless when it comes to a-t-rocities carried out by fellow african presidents, they just watch and shower bob with praises and charimanship of a.u. and sadc…smh

  3. oh my my ..this is not good.seems we have a hutu and tutsi`s kind of genocide on our hands.Zanu leaders were determined to secure a “victory” against non-existent opposition in elections scheduled for 1985, after which there would be a “mandate” from the people to impose a one-party state.

    even in these by election ,there is no opposition ,but look at how they campaign like its 2013..we have a demon posed party,driven by greed and hatred of descent.killing ndebeles in their tens of thousands just because you want to lead..i dont think white rhodesians killed as much..these was not a moment of madness but a sign of evil and barbaric leaders in our midst

  4. Zanu leaders were determined to secure a “victory” against non-existent opposition in elections scheduled for 1985, after which there would be a “mandate” from the people to impose a one-party state.rings a bell doesnt it

    this is sad reading killing our ndebele brothers and sisters in their tens of thousands so you guys can live in borrowdale brooke,and have cars plated Zim1-2 .evil and barbaric hutu and tutsi kind of massacre eeeiish.

  5. Mandla Akhe Dube

    Watsha msuthu!

  6. the truth is mugabe still has the ‘tribalism’ in him. if he had to live longer mugabe would have wanted to achieve two things in his life. get rid of all whites and get the land they took from his people. the second thing is get rid of all the Ndebeles and get all the cattle and wives they took from his forefathers. to him both whites and Ndebeles are colonisers. remember they came in at almost the same time and were a problem to the original zimbabweans and to him they are not share the zim heritage. the flooding of byo with “shona” people although it looks good, is also fulfilling his grand plan. this may be painful truth. remember this, the president does not share with anyone as he does not share most of his heart with anyone. this man does not tell anyone his real thoughts. he does only does share these with the spiritual world who have assigned him to this work. he does talk to them a lot. remember to certain extent he is doing his spiritual duty. why?

  7. matadzaenyoka

    This ‘revelation’ is similar to the ‘revelation’ that father is husband to your mother! And who did people think was the the father of Gukurahundi was, if not the Commander in Chief?

  8. The best Western governments can do now is lay bare all Intel in their hands which Intel should be used to take Mugabe and his cohorts to the Hague. That’s the only way they can atone for their silence and ‘complicity’ when Mugabe was murdering Ndebeles. I happen to be a victim of the gukurahundi and justice will have to be seen to be done.

  9. There is nothing new here. It would appear the author is confusing the Central Committee with the Politburo. Such any issue would never have been discussed at a Central Committee meeting. The numbers would have too large for a despicable and horrific genocidal campaign which needed to be kept under wraps.

  10. The two stories as written in Newsday and the one in the Sunday Times have very flimsy hearsay evidence. The Zanu Pf central committee is credited with an unbelievable sense of secrecy. In fact the author is ignorant of the relations between Shona and Ndebele. We are not so extreme opposites such that the central committee can discuss genocide of the Ndebeles without extreme descent. Some of the members of the central committee and Politburo were Ndebele.
    It is high time newspapers stop fanning resentment between the two tribes. Don’t take the peace that prevails in Zim for granted. The leaders and generation of today will depart and leave what ever legacy the newspapers decide to give them. The promotion of a false history and legacy of recent tribal war is very irresponsible. Can you please appraise us on the progress of the Matebeleland-Zambezi water project and other issues that will benefit future generations.

  11. For people who continue to be misinformed by ZPF, everything is new here. The man who is claimed to be commanding 63% of Zimbabweans’ trust is not only a liar but a killer who will have to die in office to avoid the inevitable ICC.

    1. The problem is those who are under the spell of Zanu p.f. do not even have access to this information. The only way to disseminate information to the disempowered communities would be through independent radio stations allowing free flow of information and debating of any issues. Unfortunately we do not have those and so the masses will continue to be misled.

  12. Finally it all comes to light……darkness will never prevail. Mboko can now comment.

    1. Super Zapu and the logistical support it got from the apartheid regime are not fiction.Thats what VP Mphoko was referring to.

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