Zimbabwe Military needs to be restrained

ZIMBABWE’S treacherous political transition to a possible democratic dispensation has so far shown that no institution matters the most to the Zanu PF regime’s survival than the military and therefore the democratisation process cannot succeed without a positive role played by the security establishment.

Report By Pedzisai Ruhanya

This is not to blindly suggest the military’s role alone is sufficient to make a successful transition to democracy in Zimbabwe because there are social, economic and political factors and unforeseen events that can influence how a democratic shift unravels.

However, the decisive involvement of the military in Zimbabwe’s political and electoral affairs in the past elections in 2000, 2002 and 2008 makes cogent the role of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and other security institutions, including the police, intelligence services and prison service, is critical in the process leading to democratic transition and power transfer.

The recent annual Zanu PF conference in Gweru shows the party’s membership has declined in Masvingo and Matabeleland provinces, while in regions like Mashonaland Central province, the party is disorganised.

This suggests that without the support of the security apparatus it is not possible for Zanu PF to retain power.

Given this apparent decline in Zanu PF support across the country, by its own admission, it is imperative to closely and critically scrutinise, as well as interrogate what determines the support of the military for President Robert Mugabe’s regime and why the soldiers are propping up Zanu PF’s political elite.

Like any other huge organisation, the military has institutional interests to protect and advance.

In this regard, the military’s move to back Zanu PF in electoral and political administration of the state or not, support for the democratic contingent or decision to stay neutral and respect the will of the people will depend on several issues that should be diagnosed, while putting proper solutions in place ahead of crucial elections next year.

As has been witnessed in the Arab spring upheavals, a number of internal and external factors shape and determine the military’s response to the democratic aspirations of the population.

Questions such as how legitimate are the regimes in the eyes of the soldiers and top military commanders as well as those of the general populace?

How does the military relate to the state and civil society?

Is there consensus within the rank and file of the military to support the regime and do the military and the security services have blood on their hands?

Answering these questions will give some ideas on why the military in Zimbabwe side with Mugabe’s regime, not the people.

In general, the stronger a regime’s record of satisfying political and socio-economic demands, the more likely the armed forces will prop up the system.

This is a critical aspect of the relationship between the top military brass with the political elite in Zimbabwe.

Through an elaborate patronage system established to reward partisan senior military commanders and keep them loyal to Zanu PF and Mugabe, the military has increasingly played a central role in directing production and controlling ownership of the means of production.

The military, through political patronage, has also become a significant part of the domestic bourgeoisie and many top commanders have teamed up with politicians and businesspeople to form political and economic interest groups venturing into lucrative businesses such as farming, platinum, diamond and gold mining as well as running a number state-owned enterprises.

A state that pays its senior army officers generously, as Zanu PF has done through the involvement of the military in economic affairs, will be better placed to receive their enthusiastic protection.

Top army commanders from 2000, when Zanu PF lost its grassroots support to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have been openly campaigning for Mugabe and his party, in many instances abusing human rights in the process.

The soldiers have on several occasions pronounced they will not respect any victory other than that of Mugabe, thereby pre-determining electoral outcomes in flagrant violation of domestic and international conduct expected of professional armies; besides breaching the constitution and the law. There is clear cohesion between top army officers and regime elites based on their economic interests which they protect by maintaining and promoting the status quo.

The military has been accused of human rights violations as they prop up the Zanu PF regime in past elections as was seen during the sham June 2008 presidential election run-off when the army was part of the election campaign for Mugabe which ultimately became a political onslaught on civil and political liberties of opponents.

An army that has a record of extensive human rights violations is more likely to shamelessly stick with a norm-violating regime than support the democratic contingent.

These are the issues that should necessitate behind-the-scenes negotiations with the military to persuade them to remain professional.

A clear fear of possible prosecution in a new democratic dispensation will make some military elements continue to abuse human rights in the next elections in order to maintain the status quo that will guarantee them immunity.

Like in any situation where the military sides with a political dictatorship, the key external variables are the threats of foreign intervention, the impact of widespread democratic diffusion that can lead to a revolution and the type and degree of education or training that military officers may have received abroad.

If the army in Zimbabwe realises a real possibility there will be both regional and international intervention in the event they blatantly subvert the sovereign democratic will of the people either through a violent electoral process or a blockade of a democratic transition, it will soften its stance and abandon the political cabal clinging to power through illegitimate methods.

As the country prepares for elections in 2013, partisan military generals’ decision to support continued violation of human rights and subversion of the democratic process on behalf of their political handler, Zanu PF, will be largely affected by their calculations on whether foreign powers might intervene to back the democratic contingent or not.

It is therefore critical to continue advocacy work among Sadc and AU-member states, showing empirical evidence of the interference of the military in the electoral and political affairs of Zimbabwe ahead of elections next year.

  • Ruhanya is a PhD candidate and director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.

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