Once Robert Mugabe’s fiercest supporters, independence war veterans played a key role in ousting him, proving they still wield influence in Zimbabwe which only threw off colonial rule in 1980.
Mugabe’s reign was built on support from three pillars — ZANU-PF party, the military and the war veterans — and their hardening stance against him in recent years was a bellwether of his downfall on Tuesday.
Last weekend, after the army took control, the war veterans rallied tens of thousands of ordinary Zimbabweans to join street protests against Mugabe in a sudden outpouring of public will.
“Our relationship with Mugabe had irretrievably broken down,” Victor Matemadanda, Secretary-General of the Zimbabwe Liberation War Veterans Association, said.
“We entered into a marriage, then problems started and we opted out.”
War veterans’ leader Christopher Mutsvangwa led the hardening rhetoric against Mugabe, threatening to march on his private residence.
The war veterans now have their favoured candidate Emmerson Mnangagwa as president, and he was careful to mention them in his inauguration speech on Friday.
Veterans of the 1972-1979 independence war accuse Mugabe and his wife Grace of betraying their liberation struggle and enjoying extravagant, corrupt lives while former soldiers were left destitute.
“The first couple’s conduct was the last straw and we rallied the people to come together and unequivocally denounce that,” said Matemadanda.
They were the shock troops of Mugabe’s violent election campaigns, especially in 2008, and were often implicated in the beating, intimidation and even killing of opposition supporters.
But the relations between Mugabe and the veterans soured as Grace became more active in politics and emerged as a possible next president.
“They came to realise they had been used as political storm-troopers for Mugabe and ZANU-PF,” said independent political analyst Alois Masepe.
“They realised their error. I am hoping this new awakening is permanent even under a new leader.” — AFP