IF the military takeover in Zimbabwe signifies merely a shuffling of face cards at the top level of government, it will represent an opportunity wasted.
The Zimbabwean revolution ushered in by the 1979 Lancaster House agreement that closed the chapter of British colonialism’s exploitative and perfidious rule in the land bearing the name of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, was celebrated across Africa and beyond.
Linguistic, tribal and political differences that had beset the anti-colonial struggle were set aside, bringing together the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), headed by Robert Mugabe, and its Zanla armed wing with the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), led by Joshua Nkomo, together with its Zipra fighters.
They united as a Patriotic Front to confront the racist white settler regime of prime minister Ian Smith who announced a unilateral declaration of independence rather than accept British government demands to negotiate with the country’s African majority.
Smith was sustained in his rebellion by apartheid South Africa which drove a coach and horses through London’s flimsy economic sanctions programme.
His racist regime inflicted military atrocities on rural areas where liberation movement guerillas operated, hanging and jailing many patriots.
Independent states Mozambique and Zambia suffered aerial bombing and armed incursions as the Smith regime tried vainly to hold back the tide before having to accept the game was up.
Although the early years of liberation brought benefits for the masses through better access to education and healthcare and a buoyant economy, Mugabe set out to sideline his partner Nkomo, dismissing him from the cabinet in 1982.
Protests, especially in the traditional Zapu stronghold of Matabeleland, were drowned in blood by the Fifth Brigade, trained by North Korean military advisers, in Operation Gukurahundi when 20,000 Ndebele people were massacred.
President Mugabe has always been able hitherto to rely on the army and especially on veterans of the liberation war to watch his back and prevent popular discontent over worsening economic conditions spilling over into an uprising against his 37-year-long reign.
While the president has maintained pro-socialist and anti-imperialist rhetoric, his words have been at variance with his actions.
Popular demands for land for the landless have seen mass occupations of some properties owned by white farmers engaged in large-scale production for export, but the beneficiaries have largely been cronies of the regime rather than landless rural workers most in need.
There are also well-attested allegations of involvement by high-ranking military, police and security officers in the operation of the Marange diamond fields, implying financial corruption as the basis for the military’s ongoing support for Mugabe.
The 93-year-old president’s apparent determination to pass on his crown to his wife Grace lies at the heart of the current crisis.
Not because of her capacity — and that of other Mugabe family members — to garner huge amounts of wealth while the Zimbabwean masses suffer mass unemployment and poverty but because of her antagonism to the liberation war veterans and preference for a younger generation.
The sacking of deputy president Emmerson Mnangagwa was a red rag to those who resent the belittling of the reputations of those who fought for freedom or fear loss of privileges accumulated over decades — or both.
Britain’s security services will be all over the situation seeking to restore the colonial power’s influence, but Zimbabwe’s struggling people will hope that the current crisis gives way to a more democratic, honest and peaceful outcome.