Already facing rising popular unrest over Zimbabwe’s deepening economic crisis and faction fights in his ruling party, President Robert Mugabe has now lost one of the pillars of support during his 36-year rule: veterans of the southern African nation’s independence war.
The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, once used to subdue opposition protests and spearhead policies such as the seizure of white-owned commercial farms, delivered a scathing condemnation of the 92-year-old president on Thursday. It described him as “a leader who has presided over untold suffering of the general population for his own personal aggrandizement and that of his cronies” and said they wouldn’t support him in 2018 elections.
The surprise move came as the government is facing an unprecedented liquidity crisis that’s led to civil servants, including the military, receiving salaries late and some private-sector workers receiving goods instead of salaries. That sparked a national strike on July 6 that shut down much of Zimbabwe. The country was also hit by riots as taxi operators protested against what they said was police harassment.
“It’s been a long time since Mugabe was at the receiving end of such a devastating assault from an ally,” Alex Magaisa, a U.K.-based law lecturer and one of the authors of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution, said Friday in an e-mailed statement. “The war veterans are gravitating towards the ordinary people and away from the political elites they have supported and defended for years.”
Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front has responded to the swelling chorus of criticism by blaming western embassies for sponsoring the unrest and telling a Baptist preacher who led the protests to leave the country if he didn’t like it.
On Wednesday, the ruling party organized a march of tens of thousands of pro-Mugabe supporters through the capital.
The atmosphere contrasted sharply with the anti-government protest earlier in the month when riot police confronted demonstrators with water cannons. Police arrested pastor Evan Mawarire, the 39-year-old leader of the #ThisFlag movement behind much of the unrest, and tried to charge him with attempting to overthrow the government. A magistrate’s court threw out the charge and set him free.
Read more about Evan Mawarire’s arrest and dismissal of charges
The war veterans accused the government of pursuing a “brutal suppression of the freedom of expression” and dismissed the claims of foreign sponsorship.
“We categorically reject the notion that those expressing views different to those that we hold are agents of foreign powers or agents and therefore enemies of the state,” according to the statement.
“We shall call for a meeting with the war veterans’ national executive to understand their grievances before we can make a statement on the matter,” Defense Minister Sydney Sekeramai, who’s Zanu-PF’s secretary for war veterans, said by phone.
“This is a major development in the political landscape of the country considering that the war veterans have been campaigning and supporting the Mugabe regime for the past 36 years,” Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe in the capital, Harare, said Friday by phone. “They have realized that the majority of Zimbabweans now want a change in the political leadership.”
The ruling party itself is in the grip of an internal fight over Mugabe’s successor. One group, known as the Generation 40, has coalesced around his wife Grace, while another backs Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former spy chief. In February, Mugabe acknowledged the divisions, telling people in the party who were sowing discord to “shut up.”
Former Vice President Joice Mujuru, who was expelled from Zanu-PF, has set up her own party, Zimbabwe People First, and has urged Mugabe to call new elections.
“This is a defining moment for the state and the party, because this is the genuine war veterans association which the government helped to create,” Ibbo Mandaza, the director of the Southern African Political and Economic Trust, said Friday by phone from Harare. “Mugabe has a dilemma with this one.”