UK plays down army role

UK accused of watering down army’s role in Zimbabwe riots

The Times UK by Jane Flanagan, Cape Town

August 8 2018

Ahlia Kumire grieves at her father's funeral after he was shot during post-election violence in Harare Photo credit ZINYANGE AUNTONY/GETTY

Britain insisted on a “watered down” version of a joint statement that condemned “the eruption of violence” after last week’s Zimbabwean elections but stopped short of describing it as excessive or disproportionate, sources familiar with the negotiations have told The Times.

The statement, released yesterday, failed to attribute the deaths of six civilians to the army, which turned live fire on unarmed demonstrators after the disputed ballot. Instead, the heads of missions of EU states in Zimbabwe and those of the US, Canada and Switzerland urged President Mnangagwa’s government to respect the rights of citizens and to ensure that the defence forces “act with restraint”.

At least two of those killed were shot in the back as they fled clashes between troops and opposition protesters.

Regional analysts say that the joint statement by the most influential diplomats in Zimbabwe is “long overdue” but markedly benign compared with those issued by the Commonwealth Observer Group, which monitored the election, and the Australian embassy, which expressed concern over the “excessive use of force by security forces”.

Some western diplomats have been frustrated at the UK’s “indecent haste” to accept Mr Mnangagwa as a reformed character. He was Robert Mugabe’s enforcer for decades and was linked to thousands of political killings.

A reference in the statement to “allegations of incitement to violence or violent acts, as well as vandalism and destruction of property,” echoes claims by the ruling Zanu (PF) party that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was also culpable for the deadly clashes last Wednesday.

“The British were keen for there to be an injection of balance. They think that Nelson Chamisa [leader of the MDC] has a lot to answer for in getting his followers into a frenzy and want him to take some of the heat for a situation that got out of hand very quickly,” a source privy to the discussions said.

Human Rights Watch said it had documented dozens of cases of violence by security forces and unidentified gunmen since the vote on Monday last week. However, Sibusiso Moyo, the foreign affairs minister and a retired military general, described allegations of army-led violence as “misinformation coming out from social media”.

Mr Mnangagwa, who has announced his inauguration for Sunday, wrote on Twitter that “any claim supported by evidence will be examined” and said violence “was regrettable and tragic”, while assuming no responsibility on behalf of his troops.

Piers Pigou, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, accused the UK of soft-pedalling on the issue.

Catriona Laing, the British ambassador to Zimbabwe, has been accused of showing bias towards Mr Mnangagwa.

Mr Pigou said: “I think that any statement that highlights the MDC role in any violence is irresponsible if at the same time there is a downplaying of the excessive use of force by the security apparatus. There is clear evidence of assaults, abductions, torture and sexual violence being used right now against MDC supporters and any view that points to the party’s culpability in inciting any state-sponsored violence will be seen by Zanu (PF) as just a green light to continue these actions.”

The MDC plans to launch a legal challenge to the results of the ballot, which could delay the inauguration.