Militias and the privatization of ZANU-PF, MDC political violence

Nov 21, 2011

The leaders of ZANU-PF and the MDC recently made a big show of a joint appeal for the end of political violence between and amongst their supporters. However, the culture of political violence has become so entrenched in Zimbabwe that there are actors aligned to but outside the direct control of the political parties and their leaders who have their own interests in continuing to sponsor violence.

The unusual show of anti-violence unity between President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and their respective parties followed an orgy of violence around an MDC rally. The MDC accuse ZANU-PF ‘youth’ of attacking their followers to disrupt the rally. ZANU-PF denies it, and some state-aligned media have laid the violence on inter-party squabble within the MDC.

There are precedents for both types of political violence, and of many other types, so either of the two broad explanations for this latest flare up of violence are plausible. As often happens in Zimbabwe, which explanation is given depends upon the media one reads, and upon the politicians one believes. Somewhat surprisingly, having a varied media in recent years does not seem to have helped to nail down which are the true facts in such incidents, regardless of the partisan explanations/justifications that might then follow.

Whatever the true facts, by their joint call for the end of violence, the various party leaders clearly were recognizing that this is a problem that could get out of hand if not nipped in the bud.

ZANU-PF’s long unchallenged political dominance has long meant that it and various interest groups associated with it, as well as the state institutions under its control, for a long time had the sole power to dispense violence to political opponents. This imbalance of power continued unchallenged for a long time after the MDC was formed in 1999, and up to today. However, particularly since the MDC won half the parliamentary seats in 2008, some of its more radical supporters have refused to be seating ducks for ZANU-PF violence.

In terms of raw coercive power, actual or potential, ZANU-PF obviously easily has the upper hand over the MDC. A significant part of this is its continuing control over all the security-related ministries, and over all the uniformed/armed forces of government, as well as the judiciary. It is laughable to increasingly hear the state media attempt to paint the MDC as being equal to ZANU-PF in the capacity to instigate inter-party violence, as if the two parties were even remotely well matched in this regard, which they clearly are not.

ZANU-PF is the party whose current leader’s permanent record includes boasting of having ‘degrees in violence.’ Documented examples of how the ZANU-PF government has not hesitated to use sometimes surprisingly cruel and heavy handed violence against citizens, including against sections of itself considered somehow rebellious, are too numerous and well-known to need mentioning. So it is quite bizarre to hear the party lately spoken of by some as if violence is not an integral party of its culture and modus operandai.

But on the street in urban areas where the MDC enjoys huge support, radicalized and dispirited youth are increasingly willing and able to dispense violence of their own as well. ZANU-PF militias may still enjoy the strong advantage of organs of state that show little interest in bringing them to book, but they no longer have an unchallenged advantage in the inter-party balance of terror. 

If the ZANU-PF part of the coalition government really wanted to clamp down on political violence, it quite clearly has the means and the experience to do so effectively and quickly. Whatever else the Mugabe government has been accused of not doing well, violence is one of those things that all would agree it has time and again proven itself to be devastatingly, ruthlessly effective at, when the political will/incentive exists.   

The idea of long time strongman Mugabe needing to verbally ‘plead’ for an end to political violence is therefore almost laughable. If the political will existed, he has control over all the political, para-military and judicial instruments of if not immediately ending, at least significantly curbing this usually low level but constant and growing trend. That political will does not appear to exist, despite the recent anti-violence media show.

Chipangano is a particularly notorious example of a political party-aligned militia in Harare. Many cases of various kinds of terror-with-impunity have been tied to it. Recently Tendai Savanhu, a medium-level but fairly prominent ZANU-PF apparatchik, has been rumored to be its ‘sponsor.’

According to an article in the Zimbabwe Independent, Savanhu is said to buy beer, offer cash and trading stalls in exchange for the group, said to number over 1000 ‘youths,’ to do his or the party’s (the article unfortunately does not make this clear) bidding. These trivial-sounding incentives are significant to energetic young men with lots of time on their hands, no marketable skills, poor life prospects and little hope for and confidence in their future. They live for today, and a crate of beer or an occasional cash payment can be incentive enough to do the bidding of the ‘donorw why they say that. We don’t have a group like that in the party. We have our structures in the party, which don’t include a group called Chipangano.”

Of course Savanhu's denials must be accepted at face value in the absence of actual proof to the contrary. But the way he denied not only a personal role, but that of ZANU-PF as the ‘sponsor’ of a group held responsible for a several year reign of terror in Harare is fascinating, almost amusing.
“I don’t know what they mean when they say Chipangano is linked to Zanu PF and we don’t know where this Chipangano outfit came from. I admit that there has been violence here and there, but it has mainly been between Zanu PF and MDC-T youths. We see this name in the newspapers, which tell us that Chipangano is linked to Zanu PF. We are also trying to find out who its members are and where and who started it and for what purpose,” Savanhu protested

As if a militia group would be in the formal structures of a political party! There was almost a mocking tone to Savanhu’s indifferent-sounding efforts to distance himself and his party from the group; as if to say, ‘if true, so what?’

Also interesting and revealing are that the group is no longer accused of being purely to harass political opponents. It has apparently become a quasi-business operation. Membership offers either direct economic benefits such as preferential access to much sought-after public trading stalls for hire from the City Council, or control over access to them.

Separately, the group is said to be laying claim to 51% of the units in a new high rise block being built by the Harare City Council with a foreign cash donation. In the crowded, neglected residential area of Mbare where Chipangano is said to be based, access to prime housing space is gold.

What all this means is that this and any other groups like it now have their own reasons for existence, over and above and independent of those of their ‘sponsors.’ Even if those ‘sponsors’ were to genuinely want to disband these groups, it is no longer as simple as an ‘appeal’ for non-violence before the TV cameras, or even denying them beer or cash. The groups now have their own ways of getting their own beer and cash, and are unlikely to give them up simply because the well-feathered politicians demand it, at least in public.

The original reason of being paid political enforcers increasingly recedes, replaced by a kind of free-lancing in which the original political connection is not present in a day to day sense. In between the need to terrorize the ‘sponsors’ political opponents, the militias are pretty much left to their own devices. Most of the time, the  cover of political protection is mainly useful for the access it provides to economic and other opportunities which these marginalized young people would ordinarily not be able to have

They know the politicians use them and would abandon them at a moments notice if necessary. They also know that their political sponsors will largely take care of themselves no matter which way the uncertain political winds blow. They therefore take their extra-political opportunities very seriously. These groups are certainly not going to pay any attention to the day time window-dressing statements of the same politicians who may give them cash, beer, instructions and encouragement by night.   

Groups like Chipangano inevitably invite groups to protect themselves from them and to retaliate, whether those groups are also ‘sponsored’ or spontaneous. These groups in turn morph from pure retaliatory militias into competing quasi-business terrorist groups whose reasons for existence go beyond the originally narrow political 'defense' aims.

When you have enough of these competing partly-political, quasi-business militias, it can be very difficult to stop the downward spiral of attack and counter-attack. Zimbabwe is no Somalia or Lebanon, but it is arguably in at least the early stages of a kind of dangerous privatization of violence carried out by initially politically ‘sponsored’ militias which then become freelance and deeply embedded in the society.

If and when change of power from one political 'sponsor' group to another occurs, counter-violence and retribution between the militias are simply inevitable, no matter what the politicians do or say. The identities of which militias are then dominant may change, but the basic culture of groups with at least thin political cover terrorizing the general citizenry for their own ends continues.   

The Mugabe/Tsvangirai anti-violence ‘summit’ will have done nothing to address the increasing privatization of organized, politically-connected but increasingly economically-motivated violence in Zimbabwe. At a certain level, violence instigated or encouraged by politicians has become institutionalized to where more drastic action than mere 'appeals' by those politicians is now required to stamp it out  


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