Pity Zimbabwe. For more than 30 years its people have endured deepening poverty, rampant corruption and systematic human rights abuses.
But nothing has matched, for scale nor wanton brutality, the slaughter in the early 1980s of some 15,000 men, women and children in the southern province of Matabeleland by soldiers of the North Korea-trained 5 Brigade.
And no single act has done more to widen the divide between the Ndebele-speaking people of the region, long an opposition stronghold, and the Shona-speaking majority in the rest of the country — a divide all but certain to be reflected in the election due at the end of this month.
Stuart Doran, an Australian historian, is not the first person to investigate the 5 Brigade killings. But he has produced the most authoritative account of the atrocity, drawing on hitherto classified files from the UK, Australian and Canadian government archives, as well as material from Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation.
The result, Kingdom, Power, Glory, is a chilling account of the evolution of a de facto one-party state and of Robert Mugabe’s ruthless rise to dominance, driven by ambition and his loathing for fellow nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo.
Victory in the 1980 independence elections was not enough to satisfy Mugabe’s lust for control, Doran believes. The “real enemy” was not white Rhodesia but Nkomo and his supporters.
Early in 1983 Mugabe ordered the deployment of 5 Brigade in Matabeleland, a Zapu stronghold. Their campaign of indiscriminate killings, torture and acts of brutality left survivors mentally scarred, seeking in vain acknowledgment of the role of the state, an official apology and reparation.
The book raises some awkward questions for the British government. Judging by the frequency with which UK diplomats are cited and the details they disclose, it seems clear that they were well informed about the massacres. Yet they did little to alert the outside world about the unfolding horror.
Ten years later it seemed that all had been forgotten or forgiven. Mugabe was invited on a state visit to Britain, and awarded an honorary knighthood (later rescinded). His despotic 37-year reign finally ended last November, when generals deposed him in a bloodless coup. But the link with the past was not broken.
The man endorsed as Zimbabwe’s new leader was none other than Mugabe’s counsellor and confidante for more than 30 years, ex-guerrilla Emmerson Mnangagwa— and the first western diplomat to congratulate the president in person was a UK minister.
Doran says that “from the beginning” of the Matabeleland slaughter Mugabe’s “point man”, who chaired the Joint High Command, played a “key role” in the campaign against Zapu and its armed wing, Zipra.
Doran damningly concludes that the man now seeking support at the ballot box “provided the day-to-day bridge between the political leadership and the killers in the security services”.