Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Phillip Valerio Sibanda acted out of his professional reputation in blaming MDC Alliance supporters for the fatal shooting of at least six unarmed civilians during a violent protest last week, MDC secretary for defence and security Giles Mutsekwa has said.
A retired army major and former co-Home Affairs minister in the inclusive government, Mutsekwa told the Daily News in an exclusive interview that Sibanda may have made the statement under duress as he could not contradict what his appointing authority and commander-in-chief Emmerson Mnangagwa had said in placing the blame squarely on MDC Alliance activists.
The army rolled into the streets of Harare on August 1 shooting at least six unarmed civilians dead when it was called in by police to help quell violent riots which saw several vehicles burnt, shop windows smashed and president-elect Mnangagwa’s campaign banner torn and burnt, with the angry mobs also targeting both Zanu PF’s provincial and national headquarters.
Mutsekwa said it was unthinkable for the ZDF commander to blame the opposition from deep in his heart when even an accidental discharge of live ammunition could subject a soldier to a court martial.
He said the soldiers who slaughtered protesters should have been subjected to disciplinary procedures in line with the Defence Act.
“My inside knowledge of who General PV Sibanda is, I’m tempted to think that this was a statement that was issued under duress. I know him as a well-trained soldier, officer and gentleman.
“I’m aware of his background even before his integration into the Zimbabwe National Army. He was trained in elite military academies even during the liberation struggle and after independence.
“We in the MDC have no doubt about his professionalism. We are aware that regardless of the political pressure that he is in at the moment, the man remains outstanding as a professional soldier.
“The callous murder of the seven defenceless people in Harare should never be up for debate. It is obvious. It is clear as to who instigated that.
“Zanu PF my want to hide behind the demonstrations that were done by the people — we repeat that it was not an organised demonstration sanctioned by our party but people reacted spontaneously because people knew what the outcome of that election should have been.
“Besides that, people had their democratic rights to stand up and voice their concerns and regardless of whether or not that was criminal it would not have justified the use of live ammunition,” Mutsekwa said.
“General Sibanda, like myself, would know that in any military elementary training, even an accidental discharge of live ammunition, even when you are doing your drills at the military firing range and there is an accidental discharge of live ammunition, it is an issue that takes you before a Military Court Martial. It’s not taken lightly even if you were not aiming at anything.
“If we all believe in that, therefore, these soldiers that were armed, whom we do not know up to now who gave them the order to fire at civilians in the middle of town, the first thing that should have been done if it was not because of politics — these people are only being protected by political leaders, if these people were soldiers and General Sibanda was allowed to work as a professional soldier, the first thing that would have happened is that they would have been charged in line with the Defence Act — brought before a Military Court Martial, tried and sentenced accordingly.
“During the process of the trial, they would have revealed which superior officer gave them instructions to put lives of people in danger. Because there is political interference, General Sibanda’s hands are tied and therefore they ask him under duress to make a statement he personally knows is not professional,” Mutsekwa said.
He said the promised commission of inquiry into the shootings by the president-elect was a non-event after he already made his pronouncements on the issue blaming the MDC Alliance.
“Why then does he think we must believe that it will reveal the truth after he has already said the MDC is to blame for the shootings? It is far-fetched. Mnangagwa has also never done that. We must also not forget that his close allies have also said Mnangagwa would kill for power. Josiah Hungwe is one such example. He has stated that Mnangagwa would kill for power. So to expect him to establish an independent and impartial commission is to expect too much from him.
“The most important thing is that it is traditional that Zanu PF will do anything for the retention of power.”
He expressed concern that the offending army unit may not be itself under his direct command even though he was compelled to comment on their conduct.
Mutsekwa said Sibanda, whom he described as an astute professional soldier, could also have not even been responsible for the deployment of the unit.
There has traditionally been military units that are placed under the army commander but outside his control as was the case of the Selous Scouts which were led by Ron Reedley in the Rhodesian era which would report directly to then President Ian Smith by-passing then army commander General Peter Walls.
“Such army units that are placed under you for administrative purposes but which you did not have control over exist in armies across the world,” Mutsekwa said.
He said under the current set-up, the Presidential Guard – which grew from a battalion to a full brigade – was one such unit which may not answer to any military disciplinary proceedings as they would tend to operate outside the Defence Act, but at the behest of the presidium where retired General Constantino Chiwenga has a lot of influence.
There are fears that the offending soldiers might not be accountable to the ZDF commander as Sibanda would not have hesitated to publicly place them under disciplinary action in line with his reputation as a professional soldier.
Mutsekwa, a decorated soldier who at some point was president of the Zimbabwe National Army’s Court Martial, explained that soldiers are generally made to account for their actions before their commander who could refer them to a superior authority if the matter is outside their jurisdiction and ultimately the court martial which could even pass a death sentence.
Sibanda is widely thought to have acknowledged that there may be a unit that was operating outside his purview when he expressed ignorance about soldiers who were terrorising residents following the violent protests.