Feb 20, 2006 (HARARE) — Exiled former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was the brains behind last year’s brutal clean-up campaign in Zimbabwe that left nearly a million people homeless, ZimOnline has established.
Authoritative sources within Zimbabwe’s feared state security Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) told ZimOnline at the weekend that Mengistu, who fled to Harare in 1991 and now acts as President Robert Mugabe’s security adviser, warned the Zimbabwean leader that the swelling slum and backyard population in Zimbabwe was creating a fertile ground for a mass uprising.
With the Zimbabwean economic situation ever deteriorating and a discontented population growing in numbers, Mengistu advised Mugabe that the only way to pre-empt a mass revolt in Zimbabwe or any other form of mass action was by depopulating the cities via the brutal slum clearance exercise.
Dubbed "Operation Murambatsvina" ("Operation Clean-Out Trash"), the controversial home demolition exercise left at least 700 000 people homeless and affected another 2.4 million people, according to a report by United Nations special envoy, Anna Tibaijuka.
"His idea was that reducing the urban population through such an operation would greatly diminish the chances of an uprising," said one senior intelligence official.
According to the intelligence official, who spoke on condition he was not named, the former Ethiopian dictator was of the view that spontaneous riots, worse than food riots that erupted in Harare and other cities in 1998, could happen anytime because of the deteriorating economic situation in Zimbabwe. Urgent pre-emptive action was hence necessary, he told Mugabe.
Contacted for comment, State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa vehemently denied that Mengistu was the author of the controversial urban clean-up exercise, telling ZimOnline that the Harare government does not allow the former Ethiopian dictator to interfere with the internal affairs of Zimbabwe or of his own country.
"That is totally untrue, believe you me, I am Minister of our government and I am also a member of the politburo (ruling ZANU PF party inner cabinet). All the decisions to do with the operation emanated from the politburo and were sent through me to the government," said Mutasa, regarded as one of Mugabe’s closest and most powerful confidantes.
He added: "Mengistu had absolutely nothing to do with the operation and I think it is unfair to make that kind of allegation against him. Mengistu is a guest in our country. He is here in exile and is simply resting. He does not interfere at all with the affairs of our country. We also do not allow him to interfere with his country (Ethiopia) from Zimbabwe."
But our sources said Mengistu, who survived an assassination attempt in Harare in 1995, first suggested the slum clearance idea to Mugabe in February, at one of the regular meetings he holds with the President and other senior security chiefs from the army, the CIO and the police.
After Mugabe accepted the idea, it was then followed by several weeks of meticulous planning.
Operation Murambatsvina began in May, a few weeks after the ruling ZANU PF party trounced the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change party in a controversial parliamentary election.
The first meeting to plan the logistics of the operation was chaired by Mengistu himself at CIO headquarters in Harare, and was attended by Defence Forces Commander, General Constantine Chiwenga, Zimbabwe National Army Commander Philip Valerio Sibanda, Airforce of Zimbabwe Commander Air Marshal Perence Shiri, CIO Director General Happyton Bonyongwe, his deputy Menard Muzariri, Director of Prisons Brigadier Zimondi, while the police were represented by Deputy Commissioner Godwin Matanga.
Other meetings chaired by Mengistu followed during which video clippings of Zimbabwe’s 1998 food riots, as well as footage of mass uprisings in the Ukraine, Yugoslavia and Ethiopia were shown to the group which called itself Operation Murambatsvina’s "high command".
After a series of meetings of the "high command", the group later met with government ministers, mayors and administrators sympathetic to the government such as Harare Commission chairwoman Sekesai Makwavarara and Bindura mayor Martin Dinha who endorsed the operation.
Mengistu then prepared a final document on the Operation which he submitted to Mugabe and the President endorsed it.
Operation Murambatsvina, according to the plan, was to be implemented in phases, starting with flea markets suspected of fuelling economic crimes, mainly illegal foreign currency trade.
After the flea markets, other vendors were next in line particularly those who operated push carts in cities and others who hawked goods at road intersections. The major exercise, the destruction of so-called illegal structures which included shacks, backyard homes and industries was to be done in the last phase.
Army and police vehicles would be at hand to ferry urban residents left homeless by the clean-up operation to rural areas even if they did not have homes there in line with Mengistu’s proposals in the final document.
"The exercise was well planned to ensure that not only would it de-populate the urban areas, but it would also demoralise the victims rendering them unable to organise or participate in any mass action," said another senior intelligence source.
After the destruction of their homes, many would not be able to recover immediately and would have to spend a good time of their future lives trying to re-build themselves even if they came back to the urban areas.
"The whole operation was premised on the idea that most urban dwellers are opposition supporters and ZANU PF would have nothing to lose for their suffering," said a senior intelligence source.
A project to re-build homes after Operation Murambatsvina was envisaged in Mengistu’s plan though the main objective would be to window dress the main purpose of the slum clearance exercise.
This project, later dubbed "Operation Garikai", would naturally not accommodate all the displaced people and would mainly benefit ZANU PF supporters caught up in the destruction process.
A report in the London-based New African magazine, which is sympathetic to Mugabe, which was re-produced in the Zimbabwe government-controlled Herald newspaper last year, said the whole Operation Murambatsvina exercise was a CIO plan to avert a popular uprising.
What the report did not mention was that Mengistu was the brains behind the whole process.
Mugabe has spurned repeated efforts to extradite Mengistu to face trial in Addis Ababa over his murder of thousands of opponents, forcing Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government, which itself has become repressive in recent times, to try the former dictator in absentia.
In Harare, Mengistu lives in the lap of luxury in the plush Gunhill suburb with 24-hour security from the Police VIP Protection Unit and the CIO at the Zimbabwean taxpayer’s expense.
The Mugabe government has since allocated Mengistu two large farms, one in Mazowe and another in Norton. Mengistu owns a separate home in Bluffhill.
He drives at least six luxury cars, including a Mercedes Benz, Toyota Prado, Toyota Avensis, BMW and a twin cab truck. Mengistu enjoys a special fuel scheme from the state’s National Oil Company of Zimbabwe (NOCZIM) for both personal use and for his farms, and his vehicles are serviced free of charge at the Central Mechanical Equipment Department (CMED).
In 1995, Mengistu survived an attempt on his life when an Eritrean, Solomon Ghebre Haile Michael and Abraham Goletom Joseph tried to assassinate him at his Gunhill residence. The two were arrested and subsequently sentenced to 10 and five years imprisonment respectively.
However, their sentences were later reduced to two years each on appeal because of "mitigatory circumstances" in the case. The two said they and their families had suffered torture under Mengistu’s rule in Ethiopia, and it was not disputed during the trial that they were victims of his brutal dictatorship.
Security sources said Mengistu has become so comfortable in Zimbabwe to the extent that he cannot imagine living elsewhere again. They also said he cannot imagine any other government, other than the ZANU PF one, coming into power as that would see him face extradition to Ethiopia to face the gallows.
Sources said Mengistu was rattled when the MDC nearly won the 2000 parliamentary elections and the 2002 presidential elections. Mengistu is said to have then made plans to re-locate to either China or North Korea.
But he knew very well that he would not get the same comforts as in Harare.
"For that reason he has put his services at Mugabe’s disposal to ensure ZANU PF rules forever," said another highly placed security official.