From guns to politics: Chiwenga's story

HARARE - Dressed in camouflage, a black beret and with his epaulettes all over his attire, the then commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) Constantino Chiwenga was stern, stiff and looked stressed on a warm afternoon last November.

He waved the country’s Constitution, and warned that the military was about to step in to protect the supreme law of the land, which he argued, was being desecrated by the Generation 40 (G40) that had captured former president, Robert Mugabe.

Step in, the military did and they smoked out the G40 functionaries.

In a flash, his fame spread like a bushfire — fanned by a frenetic frenzy that followed the demise of Mugabe, a character who was loathed and loved globally almost in equal measure.

Because of the role he played in Mugabe’s overthrow — after 37 years of iron-fisted rule, many feared him.

But as the sands of time flow through the hour glass, that fear has vaporised after Chiwenga swapped his military fatigues for civilian attire to take up the country’s deputy presidency.

As the retired army general basks in the sun of presidency, he has also mellowed and often hits the dance floor at Zanu PF functions with a face beaming with delight.

At a rally held in Chegutu last Thursday, the former general cracked jokes and mocked his counterpart, Vice President Kembo Mohadi, for being too tall (he is shorter).

His body language said it all: It spoke of a man on cloud nine, or someone who is just about to get there.

He dances at rallies, cracks jokes — a stunning transformation that seems strange but is not difficult to trace.

After all he is only human and during the liberation struggle he was a political commissar of the Zanu military wing, Zanla.

Not many people are, however, impressed with how he is blending into civilian life.

Former Zanu PF politburo member Jonathan Moyo has taken to tweeter to mock the former general, saying he was trying too hard.

“A whole commander of a supposedly professional Zimbabwe Defence Forces, only six months ago, now reduced to this circus,” said Moyo in reference to Chiwenga’s behaviour at rallies.

Unlike previous vice presidents, Chiwenga has proved that he is not ceremonial but powerful and effective.

Only recently, he fired nurses for insisting on an industrial action despite an agreement they had reached with their employer.

And his word stood even amid deafening protests from a cross-section of Zimbabweans who were understandably worried about the implication of the dismissals on the country’s crumbling public health delivery sector on which the majority poor are dependent.

Chiwenga was also instrumental in instituting changes to the police force following the forced retirement of former Zimbabwe Republic Police commissioner-general, Augustine Chihuri.

In government, he administers the ministry of Defence and War Veterans Affairs. He is also head of the social services cluster.

But could he be the one to come after Mnangagwa?

While many people believe he is destined for the top, his allies describe that question as trite, saying he could have become the chosen one if he really wanted to after orchestrating Mugabe’s ouster.

Perrance Shiri, the former chief air marshal of the Air Force of Zimbabwe and Chiwenga’s former classmate at St Mary’s school in Wedza recently said the former commander of the ZDF was reluctant to join politics.

“....Chiwenga is the person who orchestrated Operation Restore Legacy. He is a principled man who does things in honesty. If it was someone else, he could have taken over power, declaring that he was in charge (of State and Government). There was nothing that could have stopped him since he was in charge of the army. Chiwenga is a person who is politically mature and with the people and country at heart.

“Due to political orientation, he understood that hove huru dzinofamba nemurongwa (leadership renewal follows laid down procedures). As a result, the party chose ... Mnangagwa to lead the party, while VP Chiwenga wanted to return to the barracks. However, ... Mnangagwa appointed him vice president and second secretary of the ruling Zanu PF party,” Shiri was quoted saying in the State media recently.

But in WikiLeaks cables released in 2008, his subordinates, Herbert Chingono and Fidelis Satuku told the then United States ambassador Charles Ray that Chiwenga was a political general who would trade his military fatigues for Zanu PF regalia, and that he has done with perfection.

“...Chiwenga is a political general who works hard, but who has very little practical military experience or expertise. A political commissar before 1980, he has only attended one mid-level training course, which he did not complete. If given a choice between a military and a political issue, he routinely defaults to the political.
“His goal is to be in politics when his tenure ends as defence chief, and he will be very disappointed if he fails to achieve that goal. He has been given to making political statements,” Ray said in leaked cables after he had met the two generals.

While Shiri’s account and that of Ray are worlds apart, the former US ambassador could be saying; “I told you so”.

While Mugabe used to say “politics leads the gun”, his ouster in November last year proved otherwise.

Although the man from Wedza appears to have shifted gear and is indeed seating smugly at the side of his ally, Mnangagwa, somehow convinced that Zanu PF will win the forthcoming elections, he must be keeping his gun somewhere in case “things go wrong”, his critics say.

After all at a rally in Chegutu his counterpart, Mohadi, revealed the true colours of the so-called new dispensation, it is a junta, rule by the military.

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