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As part of the Botswana Defence Force high command, Major General Pius Mokgware had to assist the effort of maintaining friendly relations with military leaders of neighbouring states. It was on such basis that he crossed paths with General Constantino Chiwenga, the Zimbabwe army chief who is now the putative leader of the country following the rather unusual military coup last Wednesday that either toppled or didn’t topple President Robert Mugabe.
Asked to give an account of his personal knowledge of Chiwenga, Mokgware, who is Gabane-Mankgodi MP, responds: “He is a good man, he is a good strategist. I worked with him for a long time and we interacted on many occasions. I think he knows what he is doing.”
What Chiwenga is doing is changing Zimbabwe’s political guard in an unusual manner. When soldiers topple civilian leadership, they ordinarily commandeer key installations, detain incumbent leaders and announce that a coup has just taken place. Chiwenga has just staged a military coup but refuses to even use that word to describe his actions. He merely wants to restore order, he says. However, if Chiwenga thought that he could obfuscate reality by playing a word game to confuse civilians, he is doing a lousy job because even his ilk agree that what happened last week was nothing else but a coup d’état.
“It is a coup. The definition of coup is removing an elected government by force. That is exactly what happened and Mugabe has been put under house arrest,” says Mokgware, adding that Chiwenga’s explanation amounts to mere “semantics.”
Chiwenga’s actions and semantics are part of a strategy designed to keep coup leaders a safe distance from what a court of law would deem treason which carries the ultimate punishment. The strategy that Mokgware and other analysts have read into the actions of Chiwenga & Co. is that they want the change of government they desire to occur within the realm of constitutionality. Ironically, this strategy doesn’t make Mugabe completely helpless.
In the first instance, it takes the form of cutting a deal in terms of which Mugabe appears on national television to announce that he is voluntarily resigning and handing over official power to people whom he would name. In that way, the change of government would have complied with the constitution. Conversely, if Mugabe doesn’t resign voluntarily and his government is replaced by an interim one he has not publicly endorsed, the coup leaders would not have complied with the constitution and would be liable for prosecution.
“That is why it is crucial for Mugabe to step down voluntarily. Otherwise, the coup leaders would have to suspend the constitution, in which case this would be a clear-cut coup but they are avoiding that. They have also avoided international mediation because such process would be an acceptance of the fact that the president was forced out of power,” says Mokgware, who taught security studies at the University of Botswana after retiring from the army and before going into party politics.
South Africa is said to be mediating but Mokgware reiterates that such mediation is only happening unofficially and that official manifestation of that process would raise the stakes in a way that doesn’t favour the coup leaders.
The irony of the Zimbabwean coup is the justification for it. When it went into effect, the army’s Chief of Logistics went on national TV to say that the army was rooting out corrupt people around Mugabe who have looted the national treasury and brought untold socio-economic misery to a nation of 14.3 million people. If that is indeed so, why didn’t the coup happen sooner because that looting – and much worse, has been going on for a really long time?
While he concedes the point about an imperfect past that Chiwenga & Co. are well aware of, Mokgware hastens to add that during all that time, the army had to operate under the constraint of the law. However, the fact that at the precise moment that military tanks were rolling into Harare and onto the grounds of the State House, such law was still in place should neutralise the potency of such argument. In explaining this discrepancy, Mokgware says that the army leaders reached a tolerance level with the excesses of the Mugabe administration.
“They were taking orders from the government but they came a point when they ran out of patience and had to do something,” he says.
Notwithstanding the strategy Mokgware reads into Chiwenga’s actions, there is a context in which he locates the coup within the realm of constitutional propriety. He says that aside from providing physical protection against invaders, the military also exists to protect the constitution.
“If it sees that the constitution is being trampled upon, it has to take action and I think that the Zimbabwean military has done well in that respect,” the MP says.
On the whole, the general asserts that the Zimbabwean tumult offers a seminal lesson for leaders in general: that people should never be taken for granted, that they cannot take advantage of people forever and that if they surround themselves with sycophants who cannot give them honest advice, then they are definitely riding for a fall.
However, in doing what he thought was a good thing, the altruistic general described by Mokgware has exposed himself to the most intense scrutiny he has ever been under his entire life. Such scrutiny will raise serious questions about whether he has moral authority to even point an accusing finger at Mugabe. To be fair to Mokgware, he is only describing the man he interacted with professionally but the private life of that same man is anything but virtuous.
Not only has he known what Mugabe was doing, Chiwenga was part of Zimbabwe’s elaborate political patronage network that spans at least three decades. The result is that in a literal sense, the Zim general is filthy rich in a country that is so broke it doesn’t even have a currency to its name. According to Zimbabwean press reports, Chiwenga has shareholding in diamond mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe itself. He owns vast tracts of land with one property - Dockson Farm in Goromonzi, Mashonaland East – having been acquired under the controversial land reform programme that began in 2000. The innocent-sounding “programme” obscures the fact that this was a land-for-the-laddies scam. Prime farming land was confiscated from whites and parceled out among blacks, with Mugabe and his cronies getting the most valuable. Just how rich Chiwenga became public information three years ago when he divorced his wife, Jocelyn Chiwenga. An inventory that was put together during the course of divorce proceedings literally sparkled with precious stones. According to a Zimbabwean newspaper called Independent, the jewellery that the Chiwengas possessed included “40 gold watches, white gold rings, four white gold chokers, choker Jackie Kennedy pearls and bracelet pearls, 10 gold anklets, an emerald ring, pearl ring encrusted with 24 carat diamond, 48 gold broaches and a set of gold earrings and chain with diamonds. They also had 45 sets of diamond earrings, diamond tiara, blue diamond ring, diamond and emerald necklace, emerald cocktail ring, yellow diamond ring, diamond engagement rings, emerald rings and men’s Rolex watches.” As regards luxury vehicles, they owned a Prado, Jeep, Toyota Land Cruiser V8, Mercedes Benz C180, Land Rover Defender and a Land Rover Discovery 4. At the height of her power in 2009 and at a time that she was fully attended by bodyguards, Jocelyn Chiwenga threatened to “castrate” opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, when she ran into him at a shopping mall. Tsvangirai incurred this wrath for doing no more than attempt to democratically replace Mugabe as president.
Chiwenga and the man he wants to anoint president, former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, share a past that the Ndebele will never forget about. As a brigadier commanding the First Brigade in Bulawayo in 1981, Chiwenga is said to have played a significant role during Gukurahundi, a genocidal project by the Fifth Brigade to wipe out Ndebele dissidents. The former was a special army unit trained by North Korean instructors and was deployed in Zimbabwe’s Midlands and Matabeleland provinces in the 1980s. Its commander was then Colonel Perence Shiri who is now the Air Marshal of the Zimbabwean Air Force. The Minister of Security at the time was Mnangagwa, now rumoured to be the richest Zimbabwean. Gukurahundi (kgogolamoko in Setswana) is Shona for "the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains." Figures vary but the International Association of Genocide Scholars estimated the death toll from this massacre at 20 000. There is analysis that Shiri, who is Mugabe’s cousin, is the real mastermind of the coup. If the coup is successful, the Gukurahundi alumni will run a future Zimbabwe.
As army commander, Chiwenga is on the European Union and United States sanctions list that has been in place since 2002. The sanctions impose economic and travel restrictions on Mugabe, his wife Grace Mugabe, and the country’s defense industry.
Ironically, the man whom some say has a serious problem with ethics holds a PhD in Ethics from the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. On the day that he graduated, Chiwenga is said to have expressed desire to become Zimbabwe’s president in the future because he was “now educated.” There is strong suspicion that his thesis (titled “The Predominance of an Ethic of Double Standards in the United Nations Security Council Humanitarian Intervention Missions: A Critical Study Based on the Ethical Theories of Mutual Aid and Equal Recognition”) was actually ghost-written by the Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development, Dr. Jonathan Moyo, who in an ironic turn of events, has become one of Chiwenga’s targets.