By Tawanda Majoni
In Zimbabwe’s post-election frenzy, talking about the army may be risky business. Someone, a somewhat pleasant and level-headed general as it stands, has in the recent past ominously warned against “irresponsible media”. That is a broad term that means anything from telling the hard truth to saying politically incorrect things about the military.
Yet people have continued to talk about the army in mostly angry tones. That means the army can’t wish people’s tongues away just like that. The harder you force the lid down, the more furious the boiling pot gets. And we have seen the furious steam scatter as far as the UK and all manner of other places.
For instance, Kate Hoey, the loudmouthed British MP who tends to mourn louder than the grieving Africans, has set her own conditions for Zimbabwe. Key among them is the removal of Constantine Chiwenga from government because she thinks he is the face of the army that is causing havoc here. She may be wrong about Chiwenga because, so far, there is no hard evidence to link him to the perceived military shenanigans, but perceptions are a reality in their own way.
We need to be sober about the military factor in Zimbabwe’s body politic, though. Hurting truths must be told and those that are concerned must prick their ears. Anything outside that is crude unpatriotism. We are at a moment when how the army is handled will naturally define our social, economic and political road into the near and far future.
This is precisely because the army, despite its global presence in ensuring national security, currently enjoys an uneasy seat at the table of our politics. Well, this has been the case for all the time in post-colonial Zimbabwe, but there is a new nuance now. More about that later.
Several developments in the post-election phase speak to this with disturbing oratory. First was the military deployment on August 2 when opposition supporters took to the streets in Harare to protest the outcome of the 2018 general elections in which Emmerson Mnangagwa (ED) and Zanu PF were declared majority winners. Seven people were shot dead. The president-elect regretted the deaths and announced that the army had been summoned to reinforce overwhelmed police sticks that had been sent to manage the riots.
He said he would be setting up a commission of inquiry into the matter and, notably, didn’t deny that the army was responsible for the killing. In contrast, some elements in government and the army sought to sell the spin that some unidentified rogue elements were responsible for the shootings, not the army. Subsequent reports indicated that the defence units commander, Valerio Sibanda, was not involved in the deployment of the army and only got to know about it when the dogs had already bolted.
As emotions and tension swelled, people started talking of uniformed soldiers beating up residents in several suburbs. Again, the army claimed that those were not regular soldiers, but some militias of sorts. That was a hard sell, considering that many people strongly believe that the regular army has in the past been deployed to indiscriminately beat up people at election time and during political high temperatures. The army was in the news again for reportedly vandalising vendor stalls in central Harare.
The narrative emerging from these three events is as intriguing as it confusing and ominous. No one has claimed clear responsibility for all the events that the army was alleged to be involved in. Instead, a dramatic blame game has been playing out. One impression that still prevails is that ED, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces, was left out of key military decisions even though for all army deployments, in accordance with the constitution and the Defence Act, he must be the one who orders them. Yet there are other people like my brother Miles Tendi, an Oxford academic, who believes that ED was all aware of what was happening and just pretended to be the good guy so as to win the sympathy of the local and international communities in calculated political simulation.
Then it also appears that, even within the military ranks, some key players like Sibanda were left out. Military command lines are clear. Orders must come from somewhere in a traceable manner as defined by army discipline structures and infrastructure. And, as it were, if rogues or militias were involved in any way, it would always be weird to believe that they couldn’t be quickly identified and arrested. Such an incapacity would always speak ill of the army’s military standing and send startling signals.
For instance, which investors would want to come and do business in a country where the army, intelligence services and police dismally fail to act on a small group of infiltrators? Would their investments be guaranteed in any way? But then, what would be so open about business if the president can’t control his army? You see, it would just be easy for some crooked elements within the army to grab a mine or project without the knowledge of the president and that is not good for international perception. Capital is only comfortable where there is security of investment and a guarantee for the respect of property and human rights.
But that is not the major point here. The fact is, the untidy involvement of the military and the manner in which that involvement has been handled inevitably leads to strong fears and negative perceptions regarding the role of the army in the post-Robert Mugabe and post-election dispensation. It would seem that the army is now being used as a tool for self-serving power control within the ruling Zanu PF party and government. This is a new conversation in the history of military engagement in Zimbabwean power politics. In the past, concern mainly emerged around reports that the army was being used to stifle and counter the opposition, not internal party rivals.
There is a sense in which some key political players within the ruling party are positioning themselves by harvesting opportunities presented by the overbearing influence of the military, particularly after the November 2017 takeover from Mugabe which was led by the army. There could be some individuals who are seeking to carve relevance and political capital for themselves by using their grip on the army. Clearly, at least someone caused the deployment of soldiers to quell the disturbances that emerged after the announcement of the election results. Professor Tendi thinks that ED at least knew, or was directly involved. But it remains possible that the president-elect did not know of the deployments.
There are certain decisions that were made immediately after the disposal of Mugabe that seem to suggest that ED was not involved or didn’t know, even though it remains unclear who actually made them. You will recall that there was mass dismissal of senior police officers after the November takeover when ED was outside the country. These were reversed when he returned, suggesting that he was not consulted in the first place.
This tends to generate the perception that there are power struggles within Zanu PF and, more broadly, the executive arm of government. Assuming that recent deployments were made without ED’s knowledge or signature, it would imply that some individuals, maybe because they are not happy with his approach to politics or simply want to be leading the regiment, are making military decisions to advance their own interests and to undermine ED. This would, in turn, suggest that new power factions are emerging within the ruling party.
But that is dangerous if true. The militarised power contestations have the potential to drive Zimbabwe over the precipice. There is a high possibility of real national strife.
You see, there is nothing that would hold those with proximity to military infrastructure away from diverting resources for future use against their internal rivals. That is how rebel wars have unravelled in some parts of Africa and beyond.
If competing camps emerge within the ruling party, the factions may jostle to control the army, alongside the other security units. Not only does that drive attention away from genuine and bona fide national security matters; it also creates tension, division, animosity and, ultimately, clashes within the rank and file. The end product is civil unrest that tends to come with international ostracisation, abuse of natural resources, poverty and misery within the people.
Local and international commentators have said it well. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country. The last thing it can afford is strife, considering the long and drawn- out spell we went through under Mugabe. Those that seek power know where to go. And that is nowhere near our armouries. The army is for the people, not greedy politicians.
Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust