Zimbabwe’s president was security minister when genocidal rape was state policy in 1983-4. Now he seeks another term

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Trigger warning: this article contains accounts of sexual violence.

Zimbabwe will hold its elections on 23 August. The current president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is running for re-election. This is despite his having oversight in the execution of the genocide of a minority group of Zimbabweans in the south-west region, as evidenced in my newly published study.

As a genocide scholar, I have studied the nature, causes and consequences of genocide and mass atrocities, as well as the role of external institutional bystanders. Since 2011, I have researched the crimes of the powerful of Zimbabwe. Much of this has involved an analysis of official British and US government communications. This has shed new light on what knowledge was available to the British and US governments about atrocity crimes targeting the Ndebele in the early post-independence years of Zimbabwe.

My latest study explores a military operation, known as Gukurahundi, between 1983 and 1984 in Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands in Zimbabwe. Drawing on 36 in-depth interviews with survivors, my study provides new insights into Operation Gukurahundi. It identifies systematic patterns of rape and other forms of sexual violence in the operation.


Read more: British policy towards Zimbabwe during Matabeleland massacre: licence to kill


The study concludes that these patterns indicate a state policy of systematic genocidal rape in 1983 and 1984. This policy was deployed with the intent to destroy, in part, a specific ethnic group: the minority Ndebele of Zimbabwe.

My study acknowledges the immense suffering of the victims of the genocide and their descendants. It also illustrates that genocide creates victims across generations. Time cannot eliminate the trauma inflicted or the need for justice.

The genocide

In January 1983, the Zanu-PF government of Robert Mugabe, in the newly independent Zimbabwe, launched a massive security clampdown on the Ndebele. This was both politically and ethnically motivated. At the heart of the operation was a strategy of state-ordered terror. It was perpetrated by a 4,000-strong all-Shona Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwean National Army led by Perrance Shiri.

Mnangagwa had oversight over both the army’s Fifth Brigade and the Central Intelligence Organisation in his role as minister of internal security and chairman of Zimbabwe’s Joint High Command. He reported directly to Mugabe.

Mnangagwa, however, has denied accusations he played an active role in Operation Gukurahundi.

The stated objective of the campaign was to rid the country of “dissidents”. However, the overwhelming majority of those targeted by security forces were non-combatant Ndebele civilians. The government viewed them as supporters, or potential supporters, of the political opposition.

In 1983, the Fifth Brigade moved from village to village in Matabeleland North and some areas of the Midlands. Their presence led to extreme violence. The operation shifted to Matabeleland South in February 1984, where state-led atrocities and violence continued. This included the orchestrated starvation of the Ndebele.

Estimates vary on the number of non-combatant civilians massacred during Operation Gukurahundi. One conservative estimate is between 10,000 and 20,000. However, Dan Stannard, the director internal of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation during Operation Gukurahundi, believed that between 30,000 and 50,000 Ndebele may have been killed.

Although the peak of the violence occurred between 1983 and 1984, the operation didn’t end until December 1987 with the signing of a national unity accord.

Rape and sexual violence

My research reveals what has, until now, been omitted from criminological scrutiny: a state policy of rape and sexual violence that targeted the Ndebele people during Operation Gukurahundi.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda made a historic judgment which established that rape and other forms of sexual violence could be acts of genocide as defined by the United Nations Convention on Genocide Article II. The tribunal recognised how rape and sexual violence functioned to destroy the minority Tutsi group of Rwanda in 1994.

I gathered data for my study from 36 in-depth interviews with male and female survivors in a representative sample of geographical locations across Matabeleland. While small in comparison to the sheer scale of the violence and the numbers who were victimised, this study nonetheless establishes reliable conclusions about the nature of events.

The patterns I identified include:

  • public spectacles of multiple perpetrator rape targeting children and adults
  • people forced to witness the rape of female and male family members
  • rape and sexual violence followed by mass killing
  • forced intrafamilial rape
  • forced bestiality
  • forced nudity.

These are acts that can be interpreted as “deliberately inflicting on the (Ndebele) group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”, a contravention of Article II (c) of the UN Genocide Convention.

The systematic dehumanisation and degradation of the Ndebele through forced intrafamilial rape was a recurring pattern of state harm. It was pervasive in both Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South.

One of the people I interviewed, Bukhosi, who was 19 in 1984 and living in Matabeleland South, shared the cruelty of knowing that the Fifth Brigade might force him to attempt to have sex with his relatives. They would threaten to shoot him if he refused.

There were times we were afraid even to be in the company of our sister, even to go to the shop. Because I know when these guys come and see us together, they say ‘sleep with your sister’. Then you are afraid to go with your mother because something terrible would happen, they will say ‘do this to your mother’. You are afraid even to be with your brother at home, because they … these guys (Fifth Brigade), when they find the two of you. It is terrible … So we were all separated ….

Such rituals of degradation are found wherever a policy of genocidal rape is adopted. They cause shame and humiliation. They leave communities and individual families destroyed, their bonds crushed through the annihilation of social norms.

Forty years later, the intergenerational impacts of Operation Gukurahundi on the Ndebele group are profound. My interviewees widely reported mental health issues. Children born of survivors are angry and struggle to understand their family’s brutal history when questions about these painful experiences are met with silence.

I also identified patterns of reproductive violence targeting males and females. These included:

  • killing the foetuses of pregnant women
  • internment in concentration camps for sexual servitude (rape camps)
  • forced pregnancies
  • genital mutilation.

Fifth Brigade officers targeted the wombs of pregnant women with knives, bayonets or through stamping.

These acts can be interpreted as “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the (Ndebele) group”, a contravention of Article II (d) of the Genocide Convention.

Every participant in my study reported the presence of a military rank structure – and complicity of senior officers in mass rapes and sexual violence. There was no evidence of sexual predation by army personnel for personal satisfaction.

Another study participant, Phindile, was 37 and lived in Matabeleland South in 1984. There were 21 homesteads in her village. She told me there were three commanders in her area.

Those were the ones who were giving the instructions. Rape was done (by) daylight and darkness but most were done in the evening. The commanders would be there eating. The chief commander would be sitting at a distance and giving instructions on what to do. They used to do the raping according to their rank.

My research establishes that the policy of rape and other forms of sexual violence was systematic and predicated on the government’s intent to destroy the Ndebele in part. The policy reflects the ideology and strategic goals of those in high office. The fundamental human rights of many survivors remain affected to this day.

Swept under the carpet

Prosecution for genocide extends to those who plan, instigate, order, commit or aid and abet in its planning, preparation or execution.

In the early 1990s, reports of state-organised rape, the detention of women in rape camps, enforced pregnancy and other sexual atrocities trickled out of Bosnia and Croatia. Securing indictments became an international political priority.

Similar reports had trickled out of Zimbabwe a decade earlier but were swept under the carpet.

Intelligence on genocidal rape and other atrocities was minimised by British representatives in Zimbabwe. This was clearly politically influenced, as expressed in numerous diplomatic cables between Harare and London.

The crimes of genocide committed by the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or the Hutu government of Rwanda were subjected to investigation, prosecution and judgment in international courts.

Yet, 40 years after the mass atrocities of Operation Gukurahundi, there has been no official investigation, prosecution or judgment. The most senior surviving person accused of overseeing the genocide and other crimes against humanity, the incumbent president of Zimbabwe, enjoys impunity. He is endorsed and flattered – for example, he was invited to the May 2023 coronation of King Charles III of the UK.

Rather than being subjected to a process of international justice before a court with the jurisdiction to try the mass crimes of Gukurahundi, Mnangagwa will stand for re-election on 23 April. The survivors will continue their search for justice and accountability.

Source : Capital News Kenya

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