'Junta' bosses fear prosecution for 1980s crimes

Some of the military bosses who run Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe are ready to see him go – but only if they get personal assurances they won't end up in court for war crimes dating back to the 1980s.


Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s claim on Wednesday that his country is ‘’effectively being run by a military junta’’ was not a crass attempt to grab headlines.


In its 28 years in power, the guerrilla movement-turned government of President Robert Mugabe has never shaken off its militaristic structure. That President Mugabe felt confident to travel to Rome last week for the United Nations Food and Agriculture summit provides current proof that the 84-year-old leader has full military backing and did not fear being overthrown in his absence.

Zimbabwe, which gained independence from white rule in 1980 after one of the most bitter and entrenched liberation wars in Africa, is governed by a cabal of battle-hardened ex-guerrillas whose rhetoric betrays their past.

On Thursday, vice-president Joseph Msika was reported to have told a rally in the southwestern town of Zaka that a vote for Tsvangirai in the June 27 run-off election ‘’will be akin to an act of war.’’ He said :  "Voting for the Movement for Democratic Change will be like voting for Rhodesia and the British, which means voting for war."

The Marxist-bred Zimbabwe African Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) has a political party structure and there are progressives within it. But the country is actually run by the Joint Operations Command (JOC) – a war cabinet made up of the defence forces chiefs and the heads of the police, prisons service and intelligence.

Skeletons in the closet block power-sharing deal

Behind-the-scenes attempts by South Africa to broker a negotiated settlement to the fraught and violent electoral process finally floundered not so much on Mugabe’s reluctance to give up power as on his lieutenants’ fears that they would be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Some Zanu-PF elders, such as former security minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, had conceded of "the need for a power-sharing government after the election." Mugabe himself is said by some to have offered to concede defeat after the 29 March first round.

But hardliners wanted personal guarantees. JOC heavyweights such as Air Force Commander Perence Shiri and Army Commander Constantine Chiwenga argued that, in 1980, the security apparatchiks of Ian Smith’s outgoing regime were even given high-ranking jobs in the first post-colonial government.

Both Shiri and Chiwenga – and to a lesser extent Mnangagwa – were involved in the killings of between 10,000 and 30,000 people in Matabeleland, southern Zimbabwe, in the early 1980s. Those killings, which were linked to Mugabe’s campaign to oust his prime minister of the time, Joshua Nkomo, have been described by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace as a genocide.

In the recent South African-brokered negotiations, the MDC briefly considered legal immunity or some form of truth commission to smooth the JOC heavies’ exit. Tsvangirai spoke of a ''comfortable retirement'' for Mugabe. However, amid mounting evidence that the same men have been the brains behind current violence against MDC supporters, the opposition party changed its mind.

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