THERE are signs that President Robert Mugabe’s government is treading an old familiar path in the Mutare arms cache affair.
Government appears determined to spit and polish worn-out tactics to arouse nationalist sentiment about a state
under siege in order to divert public attention from daily economic hardships.
Yet a hard-pressed public accustomed to such political stunts over the past 26 years has expressed understandable scepticism over the latest bid to divert public attention.
From the Gukurahundi atrocities in Matabeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s to the Chimwenje episode in the mid-90s the key lines sound rather like a record stuck in a groove.
The recent “discovery” of an arms cache in Manicaland stirs feelings of déjà vu.
Manicaland has a long history of being intractable in its support for the opposition. Until recently, Zanu PF had tried all the tricks in the book to coerce people in Mutare and Chipinge to believe that Zanu PF was the only political party that had their interests at heart.
Conveniently, the people’s continued support for Zanu Ndonga had to be tarred with the brush of Chimwenje — an obscure paramilitary group whose aim was to unseat Mugabe’s government through the use of arms.
To hobble the late Ndabaningi Sithole’s political career and perceived resurgence of support for his party as political competition gathered steam and the economic malaise began creeping in ahead of the 1996 presidential poll.
Sithole had earlier trail-blazed the provision of housing stands at his Churu Farm in Harare which was seen as upstaging government in housing provision. Besides, he was a formidable political rival with credible nationalist credentials. Something had to be done.
Dragged before the courts for attempting to assassinate Mugabe, Sithole was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment after a long legal battle.
But he had the last laugh when he asked after sentencing: “Where in the world have you seen or heard of a person convicted of treason charges being awarded a two-year jail term?”
He went on to appeal against the sentence, not because of its leniency but its absurdity.
Government appears to be playing the same politics, whipping up the familiar scenes of arms “discoveries” as a prelude to launching fresh onslaughts on the opposition ahead of a key event — the MDC congress.
It has all happened before since the Gukurahundi era whenever the ruling party sensed threats to its self-anointed supremacy.
Before the Gukurahundi campaign, large arms caches were found on Zapu properties.
PF Zapu top brass, among them Lookout Masuku and Dumiso Dabengwa, were incarcerated on charges of trying to topple the government.
The moment the caches were discovered on Zapu owned properties, Mugabe had a licence to unleash the Korean-trained elite Fifth Brigade on hapless peasants in Matabeleland.
Their crime: remaining wedded to PF Zapu, a party that posed a serious challenge to Zanu PF’s cherished one-party state project ahead of the 1985 election.
To keep public sentiment in a state of frenzy, the salient fact that the arms caches were “discovered” in the midst of plans by a joint PF Zapu/Zanu PF committee to quantify the size of arms stocks each side held was kept under wraps.
Both sides had hidden arms of war as a hedge against a possible poll outcome that did not favour the liberation forces.
Dabengwa was detained for four years.
At his trial, a senior judge, Hillary Squires, described Dabengwa as the “most credible witness he had ever come across in all his career as a legal practitioner”.
After they were acquitted, Dabengwa and Masuku were back in prison, detained under the emergency powers.
Opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s arrest on treason charges ahead of the 2002 presidential poll involving the shadowy Canadian lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe had all the hallmarks of Zanu PF’s over-used assassination plot to oust Mugabe.
The arrest and charges partially achieved their core aims of constricting the opposition leader’s movements. But like so many other charges, the case fell apart at trial in 2004.
Meanwhile, Zanu PF had conjured up a raft of other headline-catching allegations to win polls, like the high-profile Cain Nkala murder case — declared a tissue of lies by Justice Sandra Mungwira — and the anthrax scare to reinforce its state-under-siege posture.
In 2003 three Americans found with arms at Harare International Airport were touted as spies. State papers said the trio were found with a map to State House which pointed to a possible quest to assassinate the head of state.
But the “map” proved to be no such thing and it was never produced in court. Despite being tortured the men refused to admit to any plot.
No one is quite sure what Manicaland has done this time round to upset Zanu PF. But it remains a bastion of opposition politics and people like Roy Bennett are local heroes. The MDC was expecting a large turnout of delegates at its congress this weekend.