The secret Zimbabwe policeman's cricket ball

HIS light-hearted nickname ‘Danny Boy’ is in stark contrast to his murky past as the head of Robert Mugabe’s dreaded secret police.

Dan Stannard, the ruddy-faced Irishman once regarded as the most powerful white man in Zimbabwe and one of Mugabe’s chief enforcers, has once again emerged from the shadows.

This time, however, Stannard has not been ordered to root out political dissidents under the auspices of the dreaded Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). Instead, he has resurfaced as the man tasked with assessing the safety of the foreign cricketers who are due to play World Cup matches in the strife-ridden African nation later this month. Until recently Stannard was manager of the Zimbabwe cricket team. These days, the man who once saved Mugabe’s life, is the team’s security manager.

Last week the International Cricket Council (ICC) announced that the controversial matches in Harare and Bulawayo should go ahead despite fears that players could be attacked, kidnapped or caught up in violent demonstrations against Mugabe’s regime. The decision to press ahead with the six matches, including an England fixture against Zimbabwe on February 13, was based on an assessment by the American security consultants Kroll. ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed, said: "The Kroll report, which was discussed at length, was categorical in its ultimate assessment that it is safe and secure for all six matches in Zimbabwe to proceed as planned."

However, Stannard, one of Mugabe’s most trusted former aides, is widely believed to have been working behind the scenes to persuade ICC inspectors and senior executives from Kroll that foreign cricketers will not be in danger.

"We’re safe as houses," Stannard insists, adding that security preparations in Zimbabwe have been first rate.

However, Amnesty’s Zimbabwe desk officer, Sharmala Naidoo, who has just made her own tour of the country, is sceptical of the authorities’ claims: "The [Zimbabwean] people who are re-assuring the England team are the same people who have been arresting human rights workers and journalists for years."

Last night a spokesman for the ICC, which commissioned the Kroll report, refused to confirm or deny that it or Kroll had been involved in talks with Stannard.

In the 1990s Stannard served as an intermediary between Mugabe and worried white farmers, assuring them they had nothing to fear from Zimbabwe’s president.

Little is known about his early years, other than the fact that the 65-year-old has spent most of life in Zimbabwe, Rhodesia and South Africa.

Stannard’s long friendship with Robert Mugabe started in 1980 during the country’s first one man, one vote elections. The former British South African Police was drafted into the CIO as the fledgling state prepared for black majority rule. Members of the CIO were originally trained by the East German secret police, the Stasi.

Stannard was brought in to train a new generation of agents who infiltrated rival political parties, broke up anti-government demonstrations and destabilised political groups.

White soldiers boasted they would kill Mugabe before British Governor Lord Soames could install him as the country’s first black leader. And, just days into the election campaign, Mugabe was the target of an assassination attempt.

In February 1980, Stannard was driving Mugabe towards the Midland town, Masvingo. Suddenly, he swerved off the road. Moments later the highway on which they would have been driving exploded into a sheet of flames.

Stannard’s actions not only guaranteed him rapid advancement through the ranks of the CIO but, more importantly, earned Mugabe’s trust.

He was appointed head of the internal wing of the CIO, which opposition parties claim has been responsible for the arrest and torture of hundreds of human rights workers, black politicians and journalists over the past two years.

Stannard went on to work for two of the CIO’s most efficient "opposition hunters", Emmerson Mnangagwa, minister of state for security, and Dr Sydney Sekeramayi, the head of the organisation.

It was the CIO which masterminded the invasion of Matabeleland by Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to crush rebellion by guerrillas loyal to the ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo, whom the president had accused of planning to overthrow the government. It has been claimed up to 50,000 civilians were killed.

Mugabe, who effectively turned his country into a one-party state as a result, has refused to apologise to survivors, describing the dead as "dissidents" bent on overthrowing his new government.

In 1987 Stannard was awarded Zimbabwe’s highest honour, the Order of Valour. Interestingly, there was no citation for the medal.

In 1996 Stannard retired as head of the internal unit of the CIO. He acted as a private business consultant, urging white farmers to ignore the anti-white rhetoric emerging from Harare Some of the same farmers were to become victims of the state-orchestrated land-grabs by squatters and ‘war veterans’.

Then, in March 2000, in what appeared to be a strange twist, Stannard was appointed manager of the Zimbabwe cricket team on a three-month tour to the UK. Farm invasions were under way and players were worried that their families back home would be killed. Stannard was expected to smooth the situation by assuring his young side that all would be well.

Asked at that time how he felt about being a cricket team manager and a former head of the CIO, he replied: " As far as my appointment as team manager is concerned, there is nothing sinister. It has nothing to do with my past - I just love cricket."

So does his former boss. Mugabe is often seen sipping tea, eating cake and clapping at Harare Sports Club while revelling in the magical thwack of leather against willow. He once said: "I want all my young men to be gentlemen and play cricket."

Nevertheless, Mugabe’s ambition of hosting World Cup matches may yet be thwarted. The fixtures could still be switched at the very last moment, if the security situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates. In the meantime, Stannard continues to push the party line, commenting recently: "It is as safe here now as it ever has been." In a country such as Zimbabwe that isn’t saying much.