While in certain African countries, especially those in the western parts of the continent, military personnel have left barracks to carry out coups, in Zimbabwe they prop up the incumbent president.
Soldiers have been accused of playing a partisan role in elections, with an unambiguous support for Zanu PF which goes against the Defence Act, the law that provides for the administration, duties and training of the armed forces.
The Zimbabwe Defence Forces’ mission and vision clearly spells out what the army and other armed forces seek to achieve. This includes ensuring the protection and security of Zimbabwe’s territorial integrity and independence.
Another objective of the ZDF is to provide military aid to civil power and civil authorities in Zimbabwe as well as support and promote Zimbabwe’s economic, political and social interests.
ZDF also seeks to fulfill international obligations and responsibilities with regard to international treaties with other states in the field of support operations, collective security, confidence and security building measures and humanitarian relief activities.
There is no mention of partisan participation in elections and other political processes in either the Defence Act or the ZDF vision and mission statements.
However, while on paper there is no room for the military in the elections, the reality is that they have been playing an active role.
Soldiers’ participation in elections, especially after 2000, has seen political parties attempting to reform the security sector but this has so far been a mirage and the possibility of another plebiscite mid-next year reopens the debate on what role the armed men and women play in our stuttering democracy.
University of Zimbabwe political science professor Eldred Masunungure said the participation of the soldiers in elections was improper and highly irregular in a Western liberal democratic sense.
“The presence of the military is a common occurrence in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, China and Cuba,” Masunugure said. “It is inconsistent with liberal democratic systems where there is a clear separation of the military and the civilian authority.”
He added that: “While the military itself is a political institution, they should not be involved in partisan politics but should be subordinate to the civilian authority that comes into power as a result of the electoral process.”
Masunungure said the genesis of the problem in Zimbabwe was that the country used a hybrid system that blended the British heritage and the Chinese model (where the military plays a role).
“In the latter model, the army, state and partisan politics are one and the same thing,” Masunungure added. “Our situation is also a result of the legacy of the liberation struggle where the military and the political wing were one and the same thing especially in Dare reChimurenga (war council).”
During the liberation war, the military/ political dichotomy was very blurred as the logic of the situation required a merging of both for the effective execution of the war.
Military personnel in the then Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla) were unambiguous in their mobilisation of the people as there was a political commissar responsible for keeping the morale of the fighters high as well as political orientation of the “masses”, deployed at every level.
Zanla combatants were deployed in sections (8-10 fighters), platoons (up to 30 guerillas), companies (about 100 soldiers) and detachments (comprising 3 companies) and there was a political commissar at each of these levels.
Political commissars were men and women who had received basic military training before specialising in political orientation and this method of mobilisation could have been continued in post-colonial Zimbabwe. Another analyst and University of Zimbabwe researcher Sibanengi Ncube said the laws were clear that it was the police force which was supposed to play an active part and not any other security department.
“While the police force can seek assistance from the military in serious situations, I do not think there has been a need to have the military personnel in elections,” said Ncube.
Whereas there have been cases of violence in elections, it has been argued that the state played a very significant part and soldiers have been accused of terrorising people in high density suburbs.
One way of ensuring that the military men and women remained within the barracks was the stalled security sector reforms. However, in the absence of these reforms, there has to be reorganisation of the forces.
An analyst based in South Africa, Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu said the ZDF must remain non-partisan and professional.
“This means that as an organised force it must not favour or support any political party,” said Gatsheni -Ndlovu. “Election time is a sensitive moment and the military must only be on guard to defend the state and the people during this time without necessarily embroiling themselves in running of elections and prescribing who should run the country.”
Gatsheni–Ndlovu said the main problem was that the top brass of our military remained in the hands of ex-guerrillas “who throughout the liberation struggle were organised as armed mini-politicians who organised pungwes (night vigils) and mobilised people on behalf of Zapu and Zanu.”
He added that the mere fact that post-colonial Zimbabwe saw a brigade deployed to quell dissident activities ending up killing civilians was a sign that the military played a very significant role.
“Those forces were eventually absorbed into our military sector, giving it a very bad taste,” said Gatsheni-Ndlovu. “The other reason is that since 2000, Zimbabwe found itself in an interregnum, where there was no real legitimate government.”
“During this interval the securocrats moved in to occupy a problematic position in our body politic through the secretive but vicious Joint Operations Command (JOC),” he said adding that: “They became the monsters who rule a country at a time when the old are taking time to die and the new are taking time to be born. “
An attempt to dismantle JOC through the creation of a National Security Council has largely has failed as it continues to play a central role in the country’s, political, security, and economic affairs.