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Can Zimbabwe’s politics be demilitarised?

September 24, 2023
topic:Transparency and Corruption
tags:#Zimbabwe, #military, #elections, #democracy
by:Cyril Zenda
Over four decades into its independence, the southern African nation struggles to break free from its revolutionary past.

On the night of 26 August, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) released election results that showed President Emmerson Mnangagwa as having won 52.6 per cent of the presidential vote. His challenger, Nelson Chamisa, who heads the Citizens Coalition for Change, received 44 per cent of the vote. It was an election that foreign observers said was fraught with far too many irregularities to be regarded as free and fair.

While Chamisa insisted that he had won the election – the second time after losing by about the same margin in 2018 – he chose not to take the dispute to court, claiming that doing so was pointless given the country’s captured judiciary.

Analysts agree that the nation's institutions tasked with guarding and advancing democracy, namely the electoral body, the police and the judiciary, are all subject to control of the executive branch. 

The 'irregularities' - a euphemism for 'rigging' - were glaring. The delimitation process reportedly resulted in the manipulation of electoral boundaries to the disadvantage of the opposition. Up until election day, the opposition, which saw more than 100 of its rallies arbitrarily banned by the police and hundreds of its members and supporters arrested, had been denied access to voters’ roll and information regarding polling stations. 

As per local reports, rural voters were intimidated, government food aid was distributed as coming from the ruling party, election observers were cherry-picked and some foreign observers were deported.

On election day, thugs operating under the banner of Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ), an affiliate of the ruling ZANU-PF party, set desks near the polling stations, demanding to know who each individual had voted for and jotting this information down.

The list from this apparent rigging strategy was long, and it was on this basis that the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union (AU) and other international observers concluded that the election fell short of international standards.

This is the fifth election in the country in just over two decades the results of which have been subject to dispute.

The Military Factor

The pattern of meticulously tilting the electoral playing field in favour of the ruling ZANU-PF party, some experts argue, is a direct result of the military's role in Zimbabwean politics.

The army has been actively involved in the country’s politics since 1980, when liberation fighters who had waged a bloody guerrilla war against a white colonial settler regime made cosmetic efforts to initiate a transition to civilian politics. Intimidatory guerrilla tactics have continued to be used against any opposition to ZANU PF’s autocratic rule. 

It was the military’s involvement that stopped the late Morgan Tsvangirai, the winning candidate in the March 2008 election, from assuming office and forging a 2009-2013 power-sharing government. It was the military that had installed Mnangagwa in power in November 2017 through a coup that toppled the country's long-time ruler, the late Robert Mugabe. It is also the military that continues to prop Mnangagwa up despite his apparent unpopularity, as evidenced by the latest election results where he received significantly fewer votes than his party's parliamentary candidates. 

With the military elites (who are aided by their Chinese business affiliates) being linked to plundering the country’s mineral and other natural resources, analysts argue that their interest in politics is even more pronounced. 

These analysts believe the challenge Zimbabwean citizens now face is demilitarising the country’s politics so that they can enjoy genuine freedom and democracy. 

'Zimbabwe Is A Militarised State'

Dr Washington Mazorodze, a lecturer at the Department of Peace, Security and Society at the University of Zimbabwe, perceives the military as a threat to democracy due to the oversized role it plays in almost every sphere of life. 

"If you ask me whether or not we are a militarised state, I will tell you, 'Yes. We are a militarised state,' " Dr Mazorodze told FairPlanet. 

"The military decides who gets into power in Zimbabwe," he continued. "There is no dividing line between a political party and the military. A military is supposed to act professionally and serve any leader who comes to power. In Zimbabwe, we have a military which protects the interests of a certain political party, serving members of the military are also active members of a certain political party."

He added, "Any political solution in Zimbabwe should involve the military, because it determines who gets into power and who doesn’t. The military in Zimbabwe even dominates the economic sphere [through businesse ventures it runs in collaboration with Chinese entities]. It shows the extent to which the military has an influence in Zimbabwe’s institutions."

Dr Mazorodze, who contributed a chapter to the recently-published book Military, Politics and Democratisation in Southern Africa, stated that the primary role of the military should be to defend the country against threats to civilians and the government. It is therefore wrong, in his view, for the military to dominate virtually all institutions of the State, as is the case in Zimbabwe. 

"Yes, here and there we may find former military personnel in various institutions acting professionally in their new roles outside the military," he went on. "But in Zimbabwe, almost every institution is dominated by the military."

A Military-State Conflation

Dr Dylan Yanano Mangani, a research fellow at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, stressed the importance of addressing the core political question at hand: What motivates the Zimbabwean military to act proactively during critical moments in the country's history?

"In my opinion," Dr Mangani told FairPlanet, "we must invoke history to problematise, locate and understand the military as a critical factor in developing the Zimbabwean state through the country’s war of liberation and the subsequent missed opportunities in their rehabilitation and demobilisation."

He further noted that doing so is crucial for comprehending their biased perspective on the state, which diverges from a national identity. International case studies, he believes, can help illuminate why the military's sense of entitlement is not exclusive to Zimbabwe but linked to complexities surrounding the mishandling of post-war traumatic experiences.

Dr Mangani, who also contributed to the book Military, Politics and Democratisation in Southern Africa, pointed out the concept of a severely misinterpreted developmental state philosophy, which has resulted in a fusion of the party and state, a merging of the military with the state and an excessive control of the state apparatus. In his view, these developments have failed to yield the expected dividends in terms of the national democratic revolution.

"In the final analysis, the issues you raise point to a larger and wider context of something that went wrong in Zimbabwe’s formative years," Dr Mangani continued. "There was inadequate rehabilitation done, because Zimbabwe fell into the entrapment of a typical post-colonial African state that had to negotiate between domestic constraints and external realities. 

"At the time the ideological twists of the Cold War were not far fetched, the Marxist idea of state capture may have roped the military as part of the 'vanguard elites' best suited to execute the NDR (National Democratic Revolution) as (the late former) President Mugabe once retorted, 'Already we are militarised party, and therefore it should not come as a surprise that we deploy members of the military to state institutions.' (Alao, 2012)."

'The Gun Controls Politics'

The Maji-Marefu Institute of International Relations and Security Studies, a Zimbabwe-based research think-tank, concurrs with the broader academic opinion regarding the military's role in shaping Zimbabwean politics.

"The Zimbabwean military complex is quite different from that of West or Central Africa," the institute said in a statement in the aftermath of the election. "The military is the vanguard of ZANU-PF succession politics. The gun controls politics and not the other way round. All factions of ZANU-PF close ranks when it comes to the perpetuation of the ZANU-PF political hegemony. And this is what the military will permanently underwrite."

The institute’s director, Dr Tapiwa Mashakada, told FairPlanet that at the time of the nation's independence in 1980, the integration of three armed military units from ZANLA, ZIPRA and Rhodesian Front army resulted in the continuation of wartime allegiances.

"This background is important, because later on you will see that the chain of command established during the liberation war was not broken," Dr Mashakada said. "The political leaders of the struggle became the executive, while the high command became the military junta of independent Zimbabwe.

"The allegiance of commanders to the head of state went beyond the provisions of the law. It was inspired and cemented by the revolutionary past."

He added that this is why in 2002 military commanders released a statement declaring that the army would never salute any elected leader without liberation war credentials. "That statement is like a religious order or fatwa. No one can revoke it. Not even the one who issued it. That is how serious that statement was," Mashakada said.

He further stated that by dint of the military's declaration, Tsvangirai, who had won the elections in 2008, did not become president. 

"The securocrats thwarted his victory. He did not have liberation [war] credentials. In 2017 when it became apparent that Grace Mugabe was clearly positioning herself to replace Mugabe or to become a power broker, the army stepped in and removed Mugabe and his cabal. True to the spirit and later of the army statement."

The way forward

The Maji-Marefu Institute stated that Zimbabwe’s political and electoral challenges can only be resolved through a genuine, inclusive and unconditional dialogue involving political parties, churches, civil society and additional stakeholders.

Mashakada said there ought to be security reforms in order to reorient the army into a professional, apolitical force. "But this can only happen when the generation of liberation fighters encamped in various barracks of the country is gone. It is as simple as that."

"Indeed, it can be fixed now," Dr. Mangani stated, referring to an opposition election manifesto that outlines their plan to address the military question through rehabilitation. This approach aims to prevent costly and hurried responses to new security threats while promoting a national, non-partisan sense of identity.

Dr Mazorodze, on his part, claimed that the solution to this problem lies in the establishment of strong, independent institutions that are "devoid of executive influence."

Image by Cyril Zenda. 

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Zimbabwe\'s military stands accused of involvement in politics.
© Cyril Zenda
Zimbabwe's military stands accused of involvement in politics.
Members of the Zimbabwean judiciary. The opposition accuse them of being \'captured\' by the executive branch headed by President Mnangagwa.
© Cyril Zenda
Members of the Zimbabwean judiciary. The opposition accuse them of being 'captured' by the executive branch headed by President Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa announced before the eleciton that he does not care whether it would be free and fair.
© Cyril Zenda
Mnangagwa announced before the eleciton that he does not care whether it would be free and fair.
Dr Dylan Yanano Mangani
© Dylan Yanao Mangani
Dr Dylan Yanano Mangani
Dr Tapiwa Mashakada
© Tapiwa Mashalada
Dr Tapiwa Mashakada