I remember in circa 2003 before the ground invasion of Iraq by the brits and yanks I asked a MDC representative at my university (sussex uni) a question from the floor. The MDC, or movement for democratic change, is a british colonial backed movement which campaigned for many years with the brits to achieve internal strife and change conducive to rolling back Black socialist power in Zimbabwe, but ultimately has failed thus far. I asked the MDC representative wether he would state at the meeting that he opposes any military invasion option of the british against Zimababwe. He refused to agree to that position. Now I understand better why he refused to state as such, although in my mind it was obvious that the brits were making plans for a military attack on Zimbabwe, as is evidenced by me asking the question. There were many other Africans in the audience who gave the MDC a very hard time, not because they were especially radical, many were not, but the example of land reform that ZANU facilitated, was a deeply inspirational move for African people and others, and rightly so. The question of our rights to our land is a question which is tied up to the colonial and imperialist set -up, and land to our peoples is a revolutionary slogan against imperialism and white supremacy. - Sukant Chandan, Sons of Malcolm
Zimbabwe: how Blair's 'war plot' increased military support for Mugabe
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki claimed in an interview with Al Jazeera recently that he once came under pressure from Tony Blair to assist in a military invasion of Zimbabwe to remove Robert Mugabe from power. Blair's office has denied Mbeki's allegation. Mbeki, however, remained adamant.
Mbeki's accusation has sparked furious debate, with disagreement about which of the two former leaders is telling the truth. For instance, Ian Birrell writes in the Independent that "it is impossible to determine whether the whisky-drinking president's [Mbeki] recollection is accurate given the emphatic denial by Blair – not that the former Labour leader has always proved the most reliable witness in history". Birrell also asks us to consider whether a military invasion of Zimbabwe "would really have been such a bad idea" – a consideration that critics of Mugabe may find palatable.
Mbeki is a politician who divides opinion in South Africa and Zimbabwe, so while his claim has drawn the critical attention of some, others have simply dismissed it because they regard him as complicit in the political and economic crisis that affected Zimbabwe for much of the last decade. Opinion on Blair, particularly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, is equally polarised.
However, these debates reveal more about the various commentators' predispositions towards Blair, Mbeki and Mugabe, than they do the full meaning of Mbeki's disclosure. It also matters less which one is telling the truth, although it bears mentioning that this is not the first time Mbeki has spoken about this alleged British invasion plot. When I interviewed him in 2011 he talked at length about the purported invasion scheme, which had South Africa as the intended military base. Mbeki smoked his tobacco pipe throughout our discussion, but there was no whisky in sight. Mbeki was as lucid as a tea drinker – just as he was in his interview with Al Jazeera.
Blair, in his autobiography A Journey, revealed a frustrated desire to topple Mugabe. John Kampfner's book Blair's Wars also records that "on one trip Blair found himself in the company of (former international development secretary) Clare Short. They talked for long periods about intervention. Blair confided in her that "if it were down to me, I'd do Zimbabwe as well' - that is send troops". Crucially, in 2012 I interviewed Field Marshal Charles Guthrie, who served as chief of general staff from 1994 to 97, the professional head of the British army, and chief of defence staff from 1997 to 2001. Guthrie did not name Blair, but was adamant that in 2000 he advised figures in the government against an invasion of Zimbabwe because, as he said, "it is a very difficult military operation. My strong recommendation was do not touch Zimbabwe".
A military invasion of Zimbabwe was therefore contemplated in sections of the British government, but what is more important to consider is whether the Zimbabwean leadership was at the time aware that an armed intervention idea had been floated by some in Britain, and what the consequences of this would be. In 2000, the Zimbabwean intelligence organisation violated diplomatic law enshrined in the Vienna Convention (1961) when it compulsorily unlocked a freight delivery, which was destined for the British embassy in Harare, on suspicion that it included military equipment for the purpose of overthrowing Mugabe.
No military equipment was discovered but the incident revealed the insecurity permeating the country's intelligence services in this period. Reflecting on this 2000 diplomatic bag incident, Didymus Mutasa, the Zimbabwean minister for state security between 2005 and 2009, said in 2005 that the fear Britain was planning to stage a military operation in Zimbabwe was "very real" in Zimbabwean military and intelligence circles at the time. No doubt, Mbeki had shared Britain's armed invasion plan with the Zimbabwean government.
Experts on Zimbabwean politics have in recent years been attempting to explain how and why the country's military became increasingly involved in politics from 2000. Zimbabwean opposition politicians have also been concerned with this development. The opposition leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai went as far as saying that the choice between him and Mugabe in the July 2013 presidential election was an option between democratic and military rule, because Mugabe was now a "puppet" of the military.
Indeed, many commentators and opposition politicians believe that Zimbabwe's military generals, who all fought in the country's 1970s liberation war, have sided with Mugabe against the opposition or, as Tsvangirai would have it, they have usurped Mugabe's power in order to ensure that no leader lacking liberation war credentials comes to power in their lifetime. I have interviewed many of these military generals. Several of them certainly are opposed to Tsvangirai because he did not participate in the liberation war. But they also say how foreign factors have influenced their behaviour since 2000. These external influences include their knowledge of Britain's furtive campaign for military intervention in Zimbabwe in 2000, the imposition of European Union sanctions on Zimbabwean generals in 2002 and former British foreign secretary Robin Cook's abrupt severing of Britain's military relationship with Zimbabwe in 2001.
These foreign influences helped forge a siege mentality in the Zimbabwean military, and partly shaped the Zimbabwean generals' decision to side with Mugabe against internal opposition they regarded as in cahoots with Britain - read more about this in the Journal of Southern African Studies. Whether Blair actually considered military intervention or not is beside the point. What is significant is who in Zimbabwe believed that he considered it, why and with what consequences for Zimbabwean civil-military relations.