Zimbabwe is a country of approximately 14 million people located in the southern region of Africa. Zimbabwe has experienced multiple episodes of mass atrocities since independence from the United Kingdom in 1980. The government is also responsible for a variety of rights abuses outside of these major episodes of violence, especially against perceived supporters of opposition groups.
The two most severe episodes of mass atrocities were the so-called Gukurahundi massacres from 1983 to 1987, during which government forces killed about 20,000 people in predominantly ethnic Ndebele areas, and Operation Murambatsvina (“Restore Order”) in 2005, which resulted in the forced displacement of more than 700,000 people.
Additionally, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government has organized systematic attacks against perceived supporters of opposition groups surrounding general elections in 2002 and 2008.
The Gukurahundi Massacres
During the Gukurahundi massacres, special forces from the Zimbabwean army’s elite Fifth Brigade killed more than 20,000 people in predominantly ethnic Ndebele areas of Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, and forcibly displaced tens of thousands more. The massacres concluded a decade and a half of factional fighting between Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its armed wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), and Joshua Nkomo’s opposition Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and its Zimbabwean People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), whom ZANU officials accused of supporting dissidents in the country’s south.
The Zimbabwean government has done little to acknowledge the scale and scope of the Gukurahundi violence. While research suggests that Mugabe and members of his inner circle may have orchestrated the massacres, no senior official has faced accountability for their role in the atrocities. While the ZANU-PF has paid lip-service to transitional justice for the massacres, most reconciliation and psychosocial support programs are conducted by local civil society organizations.
Election Violence in 2008
ZANU-PF’s targeted intimidation campaign against opposition and civil society leaders surrounding the general election in March and June 2008 killed approximately 200 civilians, the most severe case of large-scale lethal violence since the Gukurahundi massacres. The violence hit its peak from March to June 2008, after the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) party won a plurality—but, according to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, not the requisite majority—of votes in the first round of the presidential election.
At the order of senior security officials, ZANU-PF-linked youth and war veterans militias and formal security forces organized a systematic campaign of atrocities against MDC-T organizers and the opposition party’s supporters. The campaign resulted in the deaths of approximately 200 civilians and the torture, forced disappearance, and sexual abuse of thousands more. The violence secured ZANU-PF’s victory in the runoff elections in June and dealt a significant blow to opposition party structures.
International actors pressured the ZANU-PF government and Zimbabwean security forces to halt the violence. Fearing the spillover effects of Zimbabwe’s violence on the South African economy, the South African government played an especially significant role in negotiating a political solution to the crisis. The result was a negotiated Government of National Unity between ZANU-PF and MDC-T, which governed till ZANU-PF’s victory in the 2013 elections. Analysts have criticized ZANU-PF for manipulating the process of power-sharing to secure an upper hand against MDC-T.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What factors might serve as precursors to mass atrocity and genocide?
- How can individuals and leaders recognize and respond to indications that a country is at risk for genocide or mass atrocity?
- How can knowledge of the events in Germany and Europe before the Nazis came to power help citizens today respond to threats of genocide and mass atrocity in the world?