Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa agreed on a timeline, the government announced Thursday, to exhume some of the 20,000 people believed to have been killed in Operation Gukurahundi, a 1980s attempt under former dictator Robert Mugabe to wipe out the nation’s Ndebele ethnic group.
Mnangagwa said Wednesday that, unlike Mugabe, he is comfortable with a public debate on Gukurahundi and believes it necessary for progress in the country. During the operation, which lasted from 1983 to 1987, Mnangagwa served as Mugabe’s intelligence chief and Mugabe has accused Mnangagwa of being in charge of the genocide.
Mnangagwa replaced Mugabe after a military coup against the nonagenarian dictator in 2017. Mugabe, now 95, still lives in Zimbabwe and Mnangagwa arranged for taxpayers to finance a comfortable retirement for the dictator. Mnangagwa also established a national holiday for the leftist dictator.
Zimbabwe’s the Independent reported Thursday that the government had set “strict timeframes” to begin unearthing the victims of the massacre so as to identify them and give the proper burial denied them at the time. Thousands of those killed were hastily buried, their families denied death certificates and proper tombs. The project, the nation’s justice ministry confirmed last week, will offer closure to victims and also offer survivors of Gukurahundi paid medical care. Under Mnangagwa, the government is also working on “implementing protection mechanisms for those affected by Gukurahundi to be free to discuss their experiences,” an administration official told Agence France-Presse last week.
Under Mugabe, discussing Gukurahundi in public could result in arrest, forced disappearance, or death.
“I don’t see anything wrong with discussing in newspapers, television and other circles,” Mnangagwa said in an interview this week in anticipation of the 39th anniversary of Zimbabwe’s independence. “There is nothing to fear about this debate and as a result of the conversation which we had we have created a matrix for the implementation of ideas. Some of the issues could have been resolved a long time ago and there not a single issue that cannot be discussed.”
Noting that rights groups sought a dialogue with Mnangagwa following Mugabe’s ouster, he said, “These are citizens of this country and I discovered that actually it was unfortunate that in the past we did not entertain such dialogue. We learnt a lot from this dialogue and discovered that our differences are not critical.”
The nation’s main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, responded to the project by objecting that it was too little, too late, and noting that Mnangagwa is believed to have played a major role in the 20,000 killings. Rather than exhume the dead, Chamisa argued, “the first thing is for him to apologize because he was also a participant. He was part of government, he must apologize to the people of Zimbabwe in order to claim responsibility.”
Chamisa also lamented that Mnangagwa had not, in his opinion, adequately addressed allegations of fraud in the most recent presidential election, which he won against the opposition leader. Zimbabwe’s state as one of the world’s most impoverished nations also made, in Chamisa’s eyes, the celebration of independence hollow.
In March 2018, Mugabe, from retirement, attempted to blame Mnangagwa and chief spy David Stannard for Gukurahundi in its entirety.
“You know he (Emmerson Mnangagwa or ED) was the minister of intelligence, he’s the one with Stannard, the two of them, who led that (arms caches findings) and who even led Gukurahundi,” Mugabe said.
Gukurahundi, a term for the rain that washes away the chaff in Mugabe’s and Mnangagwa’s native Shona language, was a military operation led by North Korea-trained soldiers to find and kill dissidents who opposed Mugabe, according to its leaders. It almost exclusively targeted Ndebele civilians, however, setting them on fire or shooting them. According to New Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa at the time referred to the victims as “cockroaches” and suggested killing them with the insecticide DDT.
In January, Zimbabwe’s government blocked a coalition of Gukurahundi victims from attempting to file lawsuits against their killers, claiming they were participating in an illegal assembly at the Bulawayo courthouse.