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.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
STAYING? Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe at a funeral Saturday said he would not hand over power to the opposition.
CAJ News Agency
Jabulani Sibanda: Head of Zimbabwe’s War Veterans Assoc.

– 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.

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.

The international community has been quiet thus far. At the United Nations Security Council last week, South Africa and Russia blocked discussion of the political crisis in Zimbabwe, and the Southern African Development Community has thus far refused to sanction Zimbabwe over its continued harassment and arrest of top opposition leaders. But in an open letter to President Mugabe, 40 African leaders, including former UN chief Kofi Annan, and former rulers such as Nigeria's Abdulsalami Alhaji Abubakar, urged Zimbabwe to end the violence and to create the conditions for a free and fair election.

The response in Zimbabwe? In the past week, Tsvangirai has been arrested five times, and MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti was arrested last week and charged with treason, a crime that carries the death penalty.

Opposition party leaders say that government agents and pro-Mugabe militias have killed some 60 of their supporters since the March 29 elections, and injured hundreds more. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch in London documented some of the estimated 2,000 cases of beatings, including a horrific case in the town of Chiweshe, in which ZANU-PF officials and war veterans beat six men to death, and tortured 70 men and women, because of their apparent support for MDC in the March elections.

Prosper Mutema, an MDC activist from Mtoko in Mashonaland East Province says that he was captured by the so-called war veterans at midnight on June 3 and taken to Rukowo base in Mushamba village.

"They beat me all night with sticks and sjamboks (rhino-hide whips) until I passed out. When I regained consciousness the following day, I was made to sign a document denouncing MDC and I was also forced to hand over party regalia," he said; "all this was done in front of the whole village."

Over the weekend, President Mugabe announced charges of treason against top MDC leaders, including Tsvangirai, and hinted that he would watch for "sellouts" within his own ranks.

"We are the custodians of Zimbabwe's legacy," Mugabe was quoted by the state-owned Sunday Mail newspaper. "We will pass this on to those we know are fully aware of the party's ideology, those who value the country's legacy."

Sibanda, for his part, shrugs off charges of human rights violations, saying, "MDC started the violence, not us. Our people only act in self-defense." And he defends the use of force, both in taking away land from the 300 white farmers remaining in Zimbabwe, and also in taking away companies owned by whites. "We now want to assume control of companies," he says. "We want to empower our blacks. We have a lot of smart, educated people, who can be captains of industry. That's the first step to recovery – black economic empowerment." The current economic crisis, with an estimated 400,000 percent inflation rate, he says, "is just a passing phase."

To some former ZANU-PF members, Sibanda's words are mere bluster. Dumiso Dabengwa, a former intelligence chief under Mugabe, says that the "so-called war veterans," can be easily controlled. "There is no genuine war veteran that is going to totally support Mugabe," he says. The true war veterans have families and have suffered the same economic distress that most Zimbabweans have suffered, he says. "They are not the type to run around and harass people in the name of politics."

• Two reporters, in Bulawayo and Harare, contributed to this report. Their names are being withheld for security reasons.

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