A letter from Zimbabwe, where the former foot soldier cannot speak

Mugabe supporters rally at the Zanu PF headquarters in Harare, after thousands took to the streets to in support of the regime and to do down #ThisFlag's "foreign-sponsored" stayaway.

After last week’s march of thousands in solidarity with President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s war veterans are now having their turn at the wheel meeting in praise of the great Comrade. The gathering comes after an unsigned statement was issued last week by the war veterans association calling on the “dictatorial” leader to step down. They say their meeting is an expression of their loyalty to the Commander-in-Chief, but with denials and anonymous sources saying this and that, I’m not sure what to make of things anymore.

The ex-combatants loyal to Mugabe deny having anything to with the communique, while those who might have a gripe against his 36-year rule stand silently in the shadows as Zanu PF’s top brass malign them as traitors. But as divided as the war vets are, the differing responses emphasise what’s wrong with the Zanu PF leadership, as a government and a party.

Unless old Mugabe’s war buddies are threatening to take up arms or take over the state broadcasting services, telling Bob it’s time to sit down is not exactly a “treasonable offence” worth investigating. Going against Mugabe may have touched the revolutionary party, but most of the officials who’ve had their two cents on the “traitorous” statement are grown men who’ve been to war, survived bullets and living in the bush for months, so what’s a few hundred words on two pieces of paper?

Sticks and stones, comrades, sticks and stones

Besides, rolling out a march or a meeting whenever there’s a dissenting voice from within or outside the party doesn’t resolve Zanu PF’s internal splits or public discontent. Last month, when the war vets’ factional politics over Mugabe’s succession came to a head, he warned the ex-combatants to stay out of politics or they might risk suffering the same fate as the dissidents. For many observers, it was a chilling reminder of the 1980s ethnic conflict  between the government army and the armed wing of ZAPU which, together with Zanu PF, fought to liberate Zimbabwe. At least 20,000 civilians were massacred in the war against the dissidents so such talk coming from Mugabe is uncomfortable, to say the least. We know his age, death and succession are very touchy subjects, but it doesn’t mean people can’t talk about them, not least those who’ve spent more than three decades propping up his rule. That’s democracy.

To be clear, the war veterans aren’t my favourite bunch of Bob supporters – not that I like any of the Mugabeist groups – but in a time when conversations about patriotism are no longer synonymous with a leader being unchallengeable, this lot add an odd and interesting voice.

Sixteen years ago, some of them began a brutal campaign in the name of Mugabe and an unfinished liberation struggle, kicking white farmers off the land and simultaneously assaulting, raping or displacing black farm workers, yet today, ex-combatants still live in abject poverty. Supporters of the political opposition and activists suffered the same violations, but now some of the “defected” war vets speak of change.

It’s a hard one to reconcile; I can’t. But perhaps understanding why the frustrated say Mugabe must go or why the regime must listen to the people is easier. Right now, we’re all in the same boat of broken promises, so despite the horrors of the past, some of the public is sympathetic to the war vets’ grievances. One can only hope our comrades in charge will listen, before the party’s fractious politics engulfs us all.

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