By Andrew Kunambura and Tinashe Kairiza
There is growing disquiet within the rank and file of the military over the rising cost of living, poor salaries and difficult working conditions, with government now desperate for solutions to avert a security crisis.
Senior and middle-level officers, some of whom are directly involved in civil-military relations and intelligence, revealed widespread unease over the deteriorating economic situation in the country, underpinned by skyrocketing prices, high cost of living and hyperinflation, which has rendered salaries worthless.
The development has alarmed government, now frantically looking for resources to placate the army.Finance minister Mthuli Ncube told editors on Wednesday that he was alive to the prospects of instability and pledged to avail more resources to the military.
“On the security cluster, let me tell you, if you do not have peace, you will have (instability). There is need to get them a decent three meals a day; a decent uniform and then there is housing. I know the issues well. I am well briefed on their issues. We want to deal with that,” Ncube said.
Army officers who spoke to the Zimbabwe Independent revealed disgruntlement was at an all-time high in the armed service, particularly within the junior ranks.
They said junior officers are unhappy about the unfulfilled promises made by the authorities in the aftermath of the military coup which toppled the late former president Robert Mugabe in November 2017.
Some senior Zanu PF officials have also openly expressed fear that the party could lose future elections if economic solutions are not found.
Military sources said troops are also disappointed by the scrapping of certain privileges and trappings of comfort they briefly enjoyed soon after the coup.
The army, soon after the toppling of Mugabe, had become extremely powerful, taking over some of the roles previously reserved for the civilian intelligence service and the police. For instance, sources said, in the first few months after the coup, soldiers took over the presidential close security tasks from the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), while the Zimbabwe Republic Police were relegated to peripheral roles.
However, after Mnangagwa secured a razor-thin victory in last year’s disputed general election, he went on a purging spree, removing some influential generals from the military and reconfiguring other sections as he solidified his grip on power. The CIO is now back in charge of Mnangagwa’s close security and the spy agency has seen the privileges it enjoyed under the old Mugabe order being restored.
Mnangagwa’s mistrust of the military grew exponentially when his second-in-command, Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, made indications that he planned to take over power in 2023. Chiwenga was the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces when Mugabe was ousted.
“There is widespread disgruntlement in the army mainly over the terrible state of the economy. If you read the weekly situation reports submitted to the Office of the President and Cabinet by various army departments, you will be shocked by the level of frankness with which these issues are articulated. The biggest complaint among soldiers is that they have not been spared the economic crisis and their families are going hungry like everyone else. They also have rentals and bills to pay,” a military source said.
A senior army official also said frequent meetings are being held involving high-ranking officers from various departments and regiments where open and frank conversations about the state of affairs in the country are discussed and reports are produced. However, sources said, commanders — who are accused of enjoying higher perks than their juniors — have developed a habit of watering down the reports to conceal the level of restlessness in the rank and file.
“To tell you the truth, the bosses are edgy. There are fears that if the grievances raised by the restive soldiers are not urgently addressed, the situation could have grave consequences. In fact, in one of the meetings recently held, one of the senior officers stated that the economic mismanagement by government was equivalent to Zanu PF people digging their political graves using a table spoon. Someone then joked that, in fact, they were now digging with a proper shovel. It’s a very delicate situation,” the source said.
Sources further said the army’s Directorate of Signals has been receiving alarming situation reports (or sitreps as they are called in military parlance), as reported by the Independent in February. The reports have continued to flow in.
“The signals gauge the morale of the army sent by the Directorate of Signals to each army unit. Of late, they have been very worrying, particularly since January when things started going bad,” an officer said.
“Basically, sitreps serve the purpose of gauging and determining the morale levels within the army. What I can say is that morale is at its lowest ever.”
The developments also come at a time government is battling a huge rebellion from the rest of its employees, who on Wednesday protested over the same grievances but were restricted by police.
This week, government announced it had fired 77 doctors who have not been reporting for duty for the past two months, citing incapacitation and was investigating more of its workers. The strike has paralysed the health sector. In terms of the constitution, however, the security forces are prohibited from going on strike.
Government, battling to mobilise foreign currency to finance key budgetary priorities, has said it cannot afford to meet the salary demands of its workforce, having already seen its paltry 70% increment rejected. On average, low-ranking civil servants earn around ZW$700 per month, an equivalent of US$42, according to the prevailing parallel market exchange rate.
Conditions within the barracks, military sources said, have deteriorated, as Zimbabwe reels from the devastating impact of a multifaceted economic crisis.
Contacted for comment, Zimbabwe National Army spokesperson Colonel Overson Mugwisi yesterday said after he consulted his superiors, the army decided it would only respond to the Independent’s inquiries into the conditions of service within the military today.