Succession race a security issue

One of the most significant revelations of the just-ended Zanu PF conference is President Robert Mugabe’s candid admission that the securocrats have become embroiled in the messy race to succeed him.

Alex Magaisa

During a long address in which he railed against the scourge of factionalism that is ripping his party apart, he is quoted as having said: “The military, police and the intelligence are now involved and split as well. Let’s stop this. We do not want factions. Nobody has people. We are all Zanu PF.”

The significance of this revelation cannot be overstated. There is a demand for a closer inspection and analysis of its meaning and implications, not just for the succession race but for the nation at large.

Destabilising factor

The first important implication is that the succession race is no longer just an internal party issue. Instead, it has become a matter of national security, drawing in, as it has, the state’s key security organs, which, as a general rule, are supposed to be apolitical and non-partisan.

It means, by Mugabe’s own admission, that the succession race has not only split the party, but that this fault-line now extends to the military and other branches of the security sector. For if the securocrats’ loyalties are split, what does this mean for the security and stability of the state in the event of an open dispute over succession? This would suggest an escalation in the potential for chaos and instability should a vacancy arise abruptly in the presidency.

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All this is precisely why, in the past, I have urged the President to use his current position to carefully manage his succession to ensure that his successor has a smooth landing while he is present to oversee the transition. This call was based on the assumption that Mugabe commands respect and obedience among the different constituencies vying for power and that, therefore, he would be able to control the disgruntled factions. But his statements, which are tantamount to a public expression of frustration with the securocrats, suggest that his assumed control may be inaccurate. In other words: is the President reluctant to nominate his preferred successor because there is opposition among the securocrats? Why else would he rail against the securocrats if this is not a reasonable probability?

Loss of command
Secondly, the manner in which the President has handled the so-called split among the securocrats raises concerns over his command and control of his lieutenants and his style of management. There has clearly been a change here, because Mugabe has no history of publicly censuring his security chiefs. The public disclosure is tantamount to him telling off the securocrats in public. This does not have a known precedent, except in the early years of Independence, when government faced problems caused by former Rhodesian elements in the armed forces, including the sabotage of the Thornhill air force base in Gweru.

Questions arise as to why he chose a public forum to chide the security chiefs. After all, as Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces under the Constitution of Zimbabwe, and the securocrats’ appointing authority, the President has sufficient private channels through which to communicate with them and hold them accountable. Indeed, it could be said that the public telling-off humiliates and undermines the authority and standing of the security services chiefs. The fact that he chose a public platform to censure security chiefs is bound to raise questions over the situation behind the scenes and suggests there is a bigger problem that is becoming hard to contain. It does not bode well for the future.

Potential effects on investors

Thirdly, and related to the second point, is the effect this public censure is likely to have on external, and — in particular — investors’ perceptions of Zimbabwe. Investors assess country risk and security risk, among many other kinds of risks.
Mugabe’s public disclosure of a split in the security services sector will, no doubt, have caught the attention of the international investor community. Its members will be asking questions about the meaning and implications of such a sensitive public disclosure. It is precisely because of this that major international news agencies and broadcasters picked up on this particular issue from the conference.
In this regard, questions being posed include whether his disclosure suggests that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, has lost control of his senior security services chiefs or, at least, some of them; and what this means for the country’s stability. There has always been concern in the investor community, whether in the West or China, over the security risk associated with the problematic succession question and this public disclosure will only have added negative points to that risk. Investors will, therefore, be reassessing their options, perhaps holding on to their funds at a time when Zimbabwe seemed to have moved a few inches forward in the drive towards rehabilitation in the investor community’s eyes. Those who have been working hard to rebuild the country’s image abroad, like Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa, will have to do some fire-fighting in the coming weeks to reassure investors on this highly sensitive issue.

Exasperation
Fourth, the public disclosure suggests exasperation on the part of Mugabe in regard to his own preferences in the succession race. It suggests some of the securocrats are not backing his own preference, if he has any. Otherwise, there would be no point raising the issue of their involvement. Does he have a choice that is being resisted by some of the securocrats? Probably.

Of course, it is not known which successor the securocrats are backing and the President did not go so far as to say which successor the different securocrats prefer. He only stated that they are split. However, an analysis of recent history gives us some pointers towards the securocrats’ likely preferences.

Back in 2002, just before the presidential election, the securocrats publicly waded into the political terrain for the first time, indicating their preference in the election. The then Defence Forces Commander General Vitalis Zvinavashe told a press conference: “Let it be known that the highest office in the land is a straight jacket whose occupant is expected to observe the objectives of the liberation struggle. We will therefore not accept, let alone support or salute, anyone with a different agenda that threatens the very existence of our sovereignty.”

This statement was widely believed to be politically targeted against the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai, who was the chief rival to Mugabe. Similar declarations would be made by the securocrats around subsequent elections in 2005, 2008 and 2013. It is arguable that the preference of the majority of the securocrats would be a person with liberation struggle credentials or, at least, someone whom they believe would “observe the objectives of the liberation struggle” as stated in 2002 and reiterated in similar ways over the years. This would disqualify those, even in Zanu PF, who do not have liberation war credentials or whom the securocrats would not trust to guard the objectives of the liberation struggle. Such a scenario would point to an advantage for the likes of Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa while prejudicing the likes of the First Lady, Grace Mugabe, who does not have the same history.

Patriarchy haven
Besides, there is also a gender dimension to all this and for all the progress that Zimbabwe has made towards gender equality, the country remains a highly patriarchal society. The security sector is, more than most, a haven of patriarchy. It wasn’t until September 2013, over 33 years after independence, that the army had its first female Brigadier-General, when the then Colonel Shaliet Moyo was promoted.

There is simply a very limited history of female presence in the top echelons of the security services, despite the fact that women played an important role during the liberation war and some, like former vice-president Joice Mujuru and Sheba Tavarwisa, rose to commanding positions. It is probable that the idea of a female president — especially one without liberation war history — does not yet have many takers in military ranks.

Further, in analysing Zimbabwean politics and the role of the military, it is important to go back to the liberation struggle, when the liberation movements’ political and military structures were inextricably linked. The current close involvement of the military in civilian politics is in large part a legacy of the liberation war era.

Both Zanu and Zapu ran military units, Zanla and Zipra respectively. But, while they had their own command structures, they were also closely connected to the political leadership. For example, Zanu’s Dare ReChimurenga (War Council) included both political and military leaders. History records reveal that the 1977 special Zanu meeting, at which Mugabe formally assumed power as party President and Commander-in-Chief of Zanla, also signalled the close involvement of military commanders in the political arm of the party for the first time. Indeed, military commanders, like Rex Nhongo (Solomon Mujuru), played a critical role in making Mugabe Zanu’s leader. Scholars like Brian Raftopolous have shown that when military commanders were retired from the front during the war, they were often redeployed into political roles, a trend that continued after independence.

The result of all this is that there has always been a very close connection between the military and the political in the politics of Zanu PF and, by extension, Zimbabwe. This, in part, compelled the security chiefs to issue that infamous declaration in 2002 and in subsequent elections. They believed they had a stake in selecting Zimbabwe’s leader, who would also be their commander, just as they had done in the war years.

Although it came as a shock to many people, they were simply doing what was natural to them: helping the political arm of their party in a time of great difficulty. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the securocrats feel they have a stake in choosing Mugabe’s successor. For them, there is nothing amiss with that.

After all, they have always been allowed a say in the past. The irony is that Mugabe indulged this approach by the securocrats when it favoured his own position. The fact that he is criticising it now suggests something fundamental has probably changed in their relationship.

Begging questions
This, of course, begs the question: what has actually changed for Mugabe to issue this public telling-off to his security chiefs? Perhaps the view that they are not supporting his preferred successor is too simplistic. Perhaps his major concern is that, unlike before, the securocrats are not united in their choice and he realises the danger that this poses for the nation at large. Perhaps it would be easier if the securocrats were united behind one candidate. It was easier and safer when they were all united behind him as choice of President. But the split in their choice of his successor has now changed the situation altogether.

In addition, the irony of Mugabe’s apparent frustration with the securocrats’ involvement in the succession race is that, in the past, he has strenuously resisted security sector reform against the opposition’s demands for such reform. Before the 2013 elections, the MDC even submitted a proposal for a code of conduct governing the security services sector during elections. It was one of the reforms that never saw the light of day. The code tried to promote the apolitical, non-partisan and impartial role of the military and other branches of the security services, in line with the new constitution’s requirements.

The new constitution goes to great lengths to emphasise the apolitical and non-partisan role of the security services. The constitution’s drafters wrote section 208 in anticipation of a situation such as the one the President now has to deal with. This provision states that members of the security services are prohibited from acting in a partisan manner, from furthering the interests of any political party or cause, or from prejudicing the lawful interests of any political party or cause.

The new constitution’s drafters knew the dangers posed by the involvement of securocrats in political affairs. They wanted to rein in the war’s dangerous legacy, which had allowed the military to be closely involved in the nation’s politics. Up to now, however, these reforms have been treated with contempt. There has been no interest whatsoever in implementing them.

Back in August 2013, in triumphant mood after winning the July 31 elections, Mugabe scoffed at security sector reforms, saying in a public address at the Defence Forces Day commemorations that it was “surprising that some misguided fellow countrymen, at the behest of their Western allies” were calling for security sector reforms. He said these “misguided fellow countrymen” seek to “dilute the efficiency of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces” through the “disguise” of “demanding what they call security sector reform, when it is obvious the enemy’s real ploy is”.

What’s next?
Now, though, the President might be reflecting on that statement, perhaps realising that demands for security sector reforms to ensure non-partisanship and non-interference in politics by the securocrats were not altogether misguided. What, then, is likely to happen if Mugabe is having trouble with the securocrats?

Well, one power that he has is that he is still the appointing authority in terms of the constitution. The constitutional term for a commander of the defence forces is five years and the maximum limit is two terms. More importantly, the term has to be renewed by the President. The current crop of commanders of branches of the security services was re-appointed in 2012, when their terms were renewed by Mugabe in controversial circumstances.
Tsvangirai and the MDC-T, argued that as Prime Minister he should have been consulted in terms of the Global Political Agreement.

Overall, this means their terms are likely to be regarded as due for renewal in 2017, which is just over a year from now. Whether or not Mugabe renews those terms or uses the opportunity to appoint a new crop of commanders who share his choice of successor remains to be seen. But that is certainly a factor worth taking into account when analysing the political dynamics around succession.

Magaisa is a lawyer and lecturer at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.

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