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Zimbabwe's pro-Mugabe war vets draw hard line

In a rare interview, militia leader threatens to take over more white-owned farms and businesses.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Two Contributors / June 16, 2008

STAYING? Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe at a funeral Saturday said he would not hand over power to the opposition.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

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– The man behind Zimbabwe's most feared militia, the War Veterans, has all the credentials of a dedicated fighter except one: He's never fought in combat.

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Graduating from boot camp in Angola just after Zimbabwe's "war of liberation" against white-minority rule ended in 1980, Jabulani Sibanda soldiered on as an organizer for President Robert Mugabe's ruling party, the ZANU-PF.

It was Mr. Sibanda who led so-called war veterans to take white-owned farms by force, starting in 2000. Today, Sibanda – one of the hardest hard-liners in the ruling ZANU-PF – is blamed for orchestrating attacks on opposition supporters in the lead-up to a runoff election on June 27.

"We are definitely winning," says a confident Sibanda, in an exclusive interview in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Despite South African-sponsored talks held last week, Sibanda says there is no possibility of a power-sharing deal between Mr. Mugabe's party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

"There is no room for compromise," he says. "Where do people get this term 'government of national unity?' As far as I see it, people who are opposing each other will never work together."

Echoing comments by Mugabe Sunday, he adds that, if Zimbabwe's president hands over power, it will be to another member of the ZANU-PF. "If President Mugabe decides to retire, we, as war veterans, we will respect who the party chooses because we are an organized party, unlike MDC. We are democratic. People will choose a person with dignity."

While there are questions about Sibanda's legitimacy as a "war veteran," few question that he and his militia are one of the main obstacles to a peaceful election, or a Kenyan-style power-sharing agreement.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the March 29 elections, but by an insufficient margin to avoid a runoff. Hard-liners like Sibanda and Zimbabwe's military chiefs admit that Mr. Tsvangirai garnered more votes, but say they will never allow a transfer of power to Tsvangirai.

Given their past violence, it's hard to see these as empty threats. But some analysts say that the hard-liners will lose their resolve if Mugabe leaves.

"I don't think there is very much behind these people, they are doing what they are expected to do by the regime, which is making the regime feared," says Marian Tupy, an Africa expert at the Cato Institute in Washington. "When you do happen to see a change in regime, these people will disappear into the bush," because Mugabe won't be able to protect them anymore.

"These people know the enormity of their crimes, both in terms of violence and in the corruption over the past decades," says Mr. Tupy. Even if Tsvangirai prefers a more conciliatory approach toward former ZANU-PF criminals, he expects that other countries will launch the sort of judicial process that brought former Liberian President Charles Taylor to face charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.