Zimbabwe: Focus on war veterans

JOHANNESBURG, 4 April (IRIN) - As political tension in Zimbabwe rises, the country's liberation war veterans are increasingly seen as the shock-troops of President Robert Mugabe's ruling party in the drive to fend off a vigorous opposition challenge in the run-up to legislative elections in May.
Since February, the war veterans have led landless peasants in a government-backed campaign to occupy white-owned farms in violation of a court order. The veterans have organised which farms to target, helped distribute food and money allegedly supplied by the government to the squatters, and reportedly attacked and intimidated farmers who attempted to resist.

Veterans head farm protest

Opponents allege it is an irresponsible move by a worried government to take political advantage of land hunger in the impoverished countryside, while using the small but economically influential white population as the scapegoats of Zimbabwe's current problems. The issue of land ownership and redistribution was central to Zimbabwe's liberation war.

Welshman Ncube of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), argues that "the long and short of it is that there are very few war veterans employed in this thing." He said a small group of ex-combatants have been used to tour the rural areas, intimidating farm labourers and calling on youths from surrounding villages to participate in the farm invasions. "The majority of the youth are happy to be paid for anything," he added.

According to Colonel Martin Rupiya at the University of Zimbabwe's Centre for Defence Studies, "it is a very confused situation. There are several factions among the veterans, and some are aligning themselves with the ruling party, which is taking advantage of that."

"It's a small faction of war veterans who are involved in the farm invasions," Rupiya said. "The land issue has been hyped (by the government) and turned into a burning issue" - 20 years after independence.

The dangers inherent in the government's use of the veterans, he said, was the weekend attack on opposition marchers in Harare by veterans and government supporters. "There is a very obvious simmering of the pot, you can hear it in the language used by the government ... You can't discount worse political violence to come, which in my view is inevitable."

Ignored by government

Poverty and political expediency have combined to radicalise the veterans. Some 19,000 former liberation fighters were demobilised in 1983 out of a total of 80,000 at independence. However, little was done to provide training and jobs to ease their reintegration into society. "Around their impoverishment and destitution" emerged a far more politically vocal movement in the 1990s led by Chenjerai Hunzvi, Rupiya said.

Their frustration deepened when a scandal broke in early 1997 over the fraudulent abuse of the veterans' compensation fund in which senior government ministers and officials were involved. Inflated compensation payments were made for bogus injuries for which Hunzvi, a medical doctor, was implicated and subsequently charged.

Political alignment

Nevertheless, Hunzvi was able to mobilise the veterans movement to pressure the government into addressing their complaints over marginalisation and demands for remuneration. In August 1997, after street demonstrations, the government made a large and unbudgeted award to 50,000 ex-fighters. "When the grants were made, everybody (among the other factions) crossed the floor to join Hunzvi," Rupiya said. However, the labour unions - behind the launch of the MDC last year - successfully opposed tax increases designed to pay for the veterans' benefits.

Earlier this year, the government increased pension payments to the veterans. It also raised the stipends to local chiefs, who along with the former liberation fighters, are politically influential in the rural areas. Hunzvi remains out on bail.


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