Once Robert Mugabe’s fiercest supporters, independence war veterans played a key role in ousting him, proving they still wield influence in Zimbabwe which only threw off colonial rule in 1980.
Mugabe’s reign was built on support from three pillars – Zanu-PF party, the military and the war veterans – and their hardening stance against him in recent years was a bellwether of his downfall on Tuesday.
Last weekend, after the army took control, the war veterans rallied tens of thousands of ordinary Zimbabweans to join street protests against Mugabe in a sudden outpouring of public will.
“Our relationship with Mugabe had irretrievably broken down,” Victor Matemadanda, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Liberation War Veterans Association, told AFP.
“We entered into a marriage, then problems started and we opted out.”
War veterans’ leader Christopher Mutsvangwa led the hardening rhetoric against Mugabe, threatening to march on his private residence.
Just before the president stepped down, Mutsvangwa called further street protests, telling him “Smell the coffee. Your time is up”.
The war veterans now have their favoured candidate Emmerson Mnangagwa as president, and he was careful to mention them in his inauguration speech on Friday.
Veterans of the 1972-1979 independence war accuse Mugabe and his wife Grace of betraying their liberation struggle and enjoying extravagant, corrupt lives while former soldiers were left destitute.
“The first couple’s conduct was the last straw and we rallied the people to come together and unequivocally denounce that,” said Matemadanda.
For the war veterans, the idea of styling themselves as defenders of freedom sits uneasily with much of their history as enforcers in Mugabe’s regime.
They were the shock troops of Mugabe’s violent election campaigns, especially in 2008, and were often implicated in the beating, intimidation and even killing of opposition supporters.
Starting in 2000, they also led the violent campaign to seize white-owned farm in what Mugabe encouraged as a correction of the British colonial legacy of black people having only small areas of poor-quality land.
Often drunk or on drugs, mobs of “war veterans” – who have always included many activists too young to have actually fought in the war – attacked farmers and labourers with machetes and axes, with the president’s support.
But the relations between Mugabe and the veterans soured as Grace became more active in politics and emerged as a possible next president.
Grace, backed by her younger “G-40” supporters, pushed them off the top table, and they found themselves no longer a priority for Mugabe’s largesse and patronage.
In a landmark moment in 2016, they issued an angry rebuke of Mugabe, decrying his “dictatorial tendencies” and withdrawing their support for his 2018 re-election bid.
“They came to realise that they had been used as political storm-troopers for Mugabe and Zanu-PF – and yet their real role was to take sides with the people and be as neutral as possible politically,” said independent political analyst Alois Masepe.
“They realised their error and apologised and I am hoping this new awakening is permanent even under a new leader.”
Mnangagwa still holds onto his wartime name of “The Crocodile”, and the veterans believe his rise to power means they have regained their place in the country’s power structure.
“We want to continue to play the role of protectors of the revolution and be with the people,” said Matemadanda.