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Mugabe to the British: Gurahundi army was deployed as a humanitarian action

Former Zimbabwe president, the late Robert Mugabe once told British officials that the Fifth Brigade was deployed in Matabeleland and Midlands as “a humanitarian action to prevent further suffering by the people from the actions of the bandits”, a historian has said.

The North Korean trained army unit went on to kill an estimated 20 000 people in the two provinces under the guise of weeding out dissidents.

Presenting a lecture on Gukurahundi and the Cold War, Professor Timothy Scarnecchia, argued that Britain and the United States knew of the atrocities committed by the Fifth Brigade in the 1980s but did not publicly rebuke Mugabe, as they wanted him to advance their interests in the southern African region.

The lecture was held last week as part of the Healing and Reconciliation Film Festival that was hosted by the Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE) under the theme: The Power of Memory.

Prof Scarnecchia said in conversations between British officials and Mugabe, the former president continued to defend the actions of the Fifth Brigade army.

“A meeting between Major General Shortis and Mugabe on 17 March 1983, is quite revealing about Mugabe’s attitude about the Fifth Brigade and why it had been deployed. Shortis had been critical about the excesses about the lack of discipline in the Fifth Brigade This is the reply that Shortis wrote that Mugabe gave him -Shortis wrote that Mugabe said, the ‘Fifth Brigade had been deployed as a humanitarian action to prevent further suffering by the people from the actions of the bandits,’” narrated the historian.

“So this is a line that Mugabe would repeat other times to others, including Margaret Thatcher but it’s interesting to see the extent to which Mugabe continued to defend the actions of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) and Fifth Brigade.”

Prof Scarnecchia noted that according to Major General Shortis, Mugabe spoke bitterly about Nkomo and the long-standing intentions of ZAPU.

“Mugabe gave a line that he often gave to British and American diplomats, where he basically argued for a long time that Nkomo and ZAPU were attempting to overthrow his government. That they were still getting weapons from the Soviet Union. Mugabe would say ZAPU had this so-called,  ‘Zero hour’ plan that had been taught to their soldiers – ZPRA since 1976 and was known by ZANLA.

“Shorties said Mugabe said the problem was ZAPU was tribal and wanted a Ndebele government, whereas his government was a government of Zimbabwe by Zimbabweans not of one tribe or another. Shortis wrote that Mugabe said ‘ ZAPU could have done a great deal to prevent the troubles.’”

Citing an annual report by the UK High Commissioner Martin Ewans on the significance of the Fifth Brigade, Prof Scarnecchia, said Ewans wrote in January 1984, how terrible a year 1983 was for Zimbabwe.

“The main reason in his (Ewans) mind was Mugabe’s terrible decision to continue to go after Nkomo and ZAPU, by sending in a cowardly and ill-disciplined Shona unit ‘trained’ by the North Koreans. By 1984, it was quite clear to the British and American diplomats how obsessed Mugabe was with destroying Nkomo and ZAPU,” said the historian.

“Ewans said Mugabe went down the road of using violence and terror, which was never going to succeed. Then he argues Fifth Brigade was brought to heel more quickly than some outside observers had been prepared to concede, but not before hundreds or thousands had lost their lives. So clearly Ewans was putting the responsibility on the Fifth Brigade for these bad decisions that Mugabe had made going after Nkomo and ZAPU, then realising that in 1984 this was not going to end anytime soon even though the Fifth Brigade had been brought to heel.”

The history lecturer also highlighted that Nkomo went to the United States embassy on February 27, 1985, about the grim events taking place, having heard from other embassies that Mugabe was hell-bent on crushing ZAPU for the next election.

“In that meeting, Nkomo claimed that over 400 ZAPU members had been kidnapped in the last six weeks. Interestingly, Nkomo argued that this was done under the leadership of the Minister of State Security (Emmerson) Mnangagwa who was creating a task force responsible for these abductions and that these men mostly in plain clothes, some in camouflages were moving through with trucks without registration numbers, moving through the district, forcing and abducting and killing members of ZAPU,” narrated Prof Scarnecchia.

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