In the past few days soldiers – including members of the Presidential Guard – have looted shops and robbed informal foreign currency dealers after they were unable to withdraw their wages from banks because of acute cash shortages brought about by Zimbabwe’s official annual inflation rate of 231 million percent.
Former Home Affairs minister Dumiso Dabengwa told IRIN that the wave of street demonstrations and clashes with the police on 1 December should not be taken at face value, as it could be a government "project" to conjure up the conditions for a crackdown on opposition parties, civil society and the general population.
Dabengwa was head of intelligence services in the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) during the liberation war, but in 1982, two years after independence, he was charged with treason, along with former ZIPRA commander Lookout Masuku and four others.
They were acquitted in 1983, but were re-detained under emergency regulations, while Masuku died in 1986, apparently from cryptococcal meningitis, although the circumstances of his death remain suspicious.
ZIPRA was the armed wing of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), which drew its support mainly from the Ndebele-speaking regions of southern Zimbabwe. While Dabengwa and Masuku were in detention, Mugabe launched Operation Gukurahundi, also known as the Matabeleland Massacres, in which killed about 20,000 civilians were killed.
After his release in 1986, Dabengwa resurrected his political career and served as home affairs minister from 1992 to 2000, but resigned from Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party in 2007 and threw his weight behind Simba Makoni’s presidential bid in the 2008 elections.
"I do hope the demonstrations by the soldiers are genuine, and that it is not a ruse to come up with an excuse to crack down against the people, or even worse," Dabengwa said.
A managed riot?
"You can’t rule out what they [ZANU-PF] might do. They have so many problems … such as cholera and money shortages. They want to rule a country where they have total control over the people. Anything is possible – they face so many problems that I don’t rule out any move to contain the situation," Dabengwa said.
On 2 December the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that since August, 483 people were known to have died from cholera, an easily treatable waterborne disease, and the situation could get worse.
Colonel Simon Tsatsi told the media the looting by mobs of soldiers was an act of indiscipline. "Whatever is happening is not the official position of the army. It’s probably just a small number of undisciplined soldiers."
However, a retired senior army officer, who declined to be identified, told IRIN: "No Zimbabwean soldier goes to loot shops and then returns to the barracks as if its business as usual. My suspicions are that these events are being managed for a specific purpose, which is likely to involve allegations of trying to wage a war against the government."
Zimbabwe’s government has made repeated accusations against Botswana, southern Africa’s most vocal critic of Mugabe’s rule, that it was providing training bases for militia aligned to Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Botswana has repeatedly denied the accusation.
"Already, there are 15 MDC activists who have been held incommunicado since October 30. When you link that to the charges made against Botswana, then you can soon expect to have soldiers who will ‘own up’ to having been somehow involved in training ‘MDC bandits’, and trying to recruit some serving soldiers to stage a mutiny," the retired army officer said.
"Not all the soldiers may be aware of the kind of trap they are being led into. Only a few soldiers would be privy to the plan and would mislead other soldiers. It should be noted with suspicion that some of the looting soldiers tried to align themselves to the MDC by waving the open palm [hand signal], which is used by that party."
The retired officer said "If the process is a managed one, then it should fizzle out quickly – before the end of the week – because there is a danger that it can spin out of control.
"If Mugabe fails to secure the signature of the MDC in a power-sharing deal, he would have to resort to rule under a state of emergency, where he would suspend the constitution and rule by decree," he said.
"More than at any other time, Mugabe would want to create an environment which would enable him to declare a state of emergency. Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. ZANU-PF is facing a split, after the colleagues from PF-ZAPU said they were pulling out of the unity accord signed in 1987 after the end of the Gukurahundi genocide."
A convention to revive ZAPU will be held on December 13 and 14, and will coincide with the ZANU-PF’s annual people’s conference.
Nkomo agreed to merge ZAPU into ZANU to form ZANU-PF in 1987, a decision that did not enjoy complete support of the party’s members.
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations