Weapons theft stokes fears of instability

HARARE – The recent "suicide" of a senior army officer in the wake of a break-in at a military armoury in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, is sowing fears that the missing guns may be used to fuel instability.

In late October, 20 Chinese manufactured AK-47s and a number of shotguns were stolen from the armoury at the Pomona army barracks in Harare. The deputy commander of Pomona barracks, Major Maxwell Samudzi, had "committed suicide" while being held in solitary confinement, according to a report in the government newspaper, The Herald.

Local media reports said as many as 120 serving soldiers were detained in connection with the theft and allegedly tortured. Since then, a member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Pascal Gwezere, has been arrested, allegedly tortured, and charged with the theft.

Morgan Komichi, deputy organising secretary of the MDC, told IRIN that Gwezere’s arrest was part of "short- to long-term strategy" by President Robert Mugabe to destabilise the MDC party, led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, which joined Zimbabwe’s fragile unity government in February 2009.

The unity government – an uneasy partnership between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and the MDC – broke down in October after Tsvangirai "disengaged" from it, returning to the fold only after the Southern African Development Community (SADC) intervened.

"What we are witnessing is a ZANU-PF tried-and-tested strategy which has been used since the 1980s, so that they can crack down against our party [MDC]. Searches [by the police and military] have already been conducted at one of the houses used by senior party officials in Harare, while the transport manager [Gwezere] was kidnapped and now faces charges of stealing the guns," Komichi said.

"My interpretation of the development is that there are elements, especially from the military, who are [allegedly] behind the break-in; who, in the event of a constitutional referendum or election, would use the guns to terrorise people," he said.

"If, as is expected, the MDC wins the next election – if it is free and fair – we could see the emergence of armed people with roots in ZANU-PF who would create an unstable environment for an MDC government."

Political analyst John Makumbe told IRIN it was unlikely that the theft of weapons was part of a plan to create a resistance movement to any future MDC government, and was more likely to be the work of one of two ZANU-PF factions, which both wielded influence over the military.

"What is happening is that the two factions in ZANU-PF are trying to upstage and outflank each other in the battle to succeed Mugabe, and we may see some people being eliminated," Makumbe commented.

"It is important to remember that the Air Force commander [Perrance Shiri] survived an attempt on his life [in 2008], and although it turned out that the attempt on his life was based on a love triangle, the suspects have not been arrested, even though the gun used was traced back to the military armoury."

General Solomon Mujuru, a retired Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander, leads the ZANU-PF faction that wants his wife, Zimbabwe’s vice-president Joyce Mujuru, to succeed the 86-year-old Mugabe, who has held power since independence from Britain in 1980; the other faction is led by the defence minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa. ZANU-PF will hold its annual conference in December.

"The MDC may still be harassed in connection with the missing guns. However, the most frightening and unsettling prospect is that if there is a referendum, an election, or the power-sharing deal collapses … ZANU-PF is not capable of winning a free and credible election without terrorising people," Makumbe said.

A relapse into violence?

Political analyst Eldred Masunungure told IRIN the current developments were pointers indicating that the political instability and violence which had rocked the country during the elections in 2008 could return.

"The possibility of a relapse into the 2008 violence is an omnipresent danger; those who engineered the violence are still around, and still have the same resources. All it might take would be the issuing of a new command to unleash more violence. The announcement of the date for another election will see violence increasing, as the infrastructure of violence is still there," Masunungure said.

In 2008 ZANU-PF lost its majority in parliament for the first time since independence, and Mugabe lost the first round of the presidential poll to his rival Tsvangirai – who narrowly missed the 50 percent plus one vote that would have seen him elected president.

Tsvangirai withdrew from the run-off in protest over political violence that killed over 120 people and displaced thousands. Mugabe won the run-off unopposed, but his victory was not recognized by international observers, including SADC.