Memories of drum-beating former fighters of Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation war storming the Supreme Court in an attempt to force Chief Justice Antony Gubbay to resign remains a defining epoch in the country’s history.
Gubbay was singled out by the militant war veterans after the Supreme Court passed an unfavourable judgement on the controversial fast-track land reform in 2001.
The war veterans could not stomach the ruling outlawing a programme that allowed them to move to prime agriculture land, after years of toiling on barren land allocated to them by the former colonial masters under its repressive laws.
The former fighters walked tall after hounding Gubbay out of office together with two other white High Court judges — Justice Fergus Blackie and Justice James Devittie — who resigned in solidarity.
A precedent had been set that later laid fertile ground for the death of the rule of law in the country.
Barely a year after Gubbay’s unceremonious departure, the now Judicial Service Commission deputy secretary Walter Chikwanha was battered by the former combatants for yet another court ruling that went against them.
Working as the sole magistrate in Chipinge, Chikwanha was allegedly dragged out of his courtroom by suspected war veterans and assaulted at the government complex for dismissing an application by the State to remand in custody five MDC officials.
The war veterans’ political influence and wanton disregard of the law rose to terrifying levels.
They were soon to be used to perpetrate gross human rights violations against the citizens as they propped up President Robert Mugabe’s electoral campaigns in the face of stiff competition from Morgan Tsvangirai’s labour-backed MDC party.
The worst nightmare for Zimbabweans at the hands of the marauding ex-freedom fighters was yet to come.
In 2008, the ex-combatants and state agents led a bloody presidential re-run campaign that sought to overturn Mugabe’s first round poll defeat to Tsvangirai.
The former premier claims over 300 of his supporters were killed and thousands displaced in an orgy of violence the war veterans would find difficult to disassociate themselves from.
Many will not forget the “short and long sleeves,” breaking of limbs and killing of villagers’ livestock in bases widely manned by the veterans.
“People who are supposed to honour and respect you fear you instead,” Zimbabwe-based lawyer Alex Magaisa observed last week.
He was writing on his blog after the unthinkable happened on Thursday where elderly war veterans were brutalised by young baton-wielding police officers.
Some fainted near Harare’s City Sports Centre after police tear-gassed them as they tried to launch a demonstration against First Lady Grace Mugabe.
The once-revered war veterans who had been used to violating human rights with impunity were indeed now on the receiving end.
Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them from holding the demonstration. Some of them were left nursing wounds and were reportedly admitted at hospitals.
Before Mugabe lashed at war veterans’ leader Christopher Mutsvangwa in his televised address on Friday, the former guerrillas could have been blanketed in shock wondering how the police could subject them to such treatment.
Their treatment by police created a buzz on social media as the former fighters became a butt of jokes.
“How things change. Born frees clad in police uniforms walloping war veterans in town.
“Ovets (sic) get taste of own medicine, tear-gassed at Sports Centre, it’s chaos,”
“We are all equal before the baton sticks,” were some of the jokes shared on Facebook and WhatsApp.
People’s Democratic Party spokesperson Jacob Mafume said he did not condone police brutality on war veterans, but “this is a Damascus moment for the war veterans or portions of them. The fact that they were beaten cannot be a machination of the west. they received the beating from their colleagues.”
Magaisa also said the war veterans had tasted their own medicine.
“A leopard is happy when it drags another through the dirt, but when it is its own turn to be dragged, it protests that its beautiful sports are being soiled,” Magaisa wrote in a memo to war veterans.
“A few sayings describe your situation better than this set of words.
“Think about what you [war vets] have done before or what you have allowed or encouraged to be done and compare it to what is happening to you. It is often said of revolutions that go wrong that they would be eating their children.”
Magaisa said the war veterans were treated shabbily because they were failing to handle themselves professionally and were conduits in Zanu PF factional fighting.
He said the war veterans had been isolating themselves from the people by pursuing selfish interests.
Political analyst Takura Zhangazha said war veterans wanted special treatment.
“The war veterans believe in their own national political exceptionalism,” he wrote on his blog.
“That’s why while they are shocked and disappointed that they have been tear-gassed and stopped from meeting like everyone else, they still firmly believe they shouldn’t be treated like everyone else.
“It is a view that has generally been accepted in public discourse, more out of fear than it is out of respect.”
However, Mafume said no matter how bad the war veterans hadbeen conducting themselves; they should not be denied their constitutional rights.
“Brutality is brutality and this cannot be the freedom Zimbabweans seek, a police ever ready to brutalise citizens at the behest of one man. The fact that a meeting has moved a few metres from where it was supposed to be held does not justify violence,” Mafume said.
However, Mugabe justified poli- ce’s heavy-handedness, saying the meeting’s agenda was not clear and him as the patron of war veterans had not been informed by their leader Christopher Mutsvangwa.
Among the former fighters’ unlikely sympathisers was the MDC-T, which said the action by the police to suppress “a peaceful meeting” was a “total negation of the tenets of democracy for which many of these gallant sons and daughters paid the supreme sacrifice.”
“The action by the police vindicates what the MDC has always been saying regarding the indiscriminate and illegal use of force by the police; particularly against opposition political activists ever since the formation of our party in September 1999,” the MDC-T said in a statement.”
Civic organisations also wei-ghted in and roundly condemned police brutality against war veterans, arguing they were like all citizens and had the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, to demonstrate and petition, as provided in the Constitution.