HomeAnalysisMugabe versus the military

Mugabe versus the military

SINCE the emergence of the opposition MDC in 1999 largely due to dramatically deteriorating social and economic conditions at the turn of the new millennium, war veterans have been President Robert Mugabe’s foot soldiers; storm-troopers if you like. They carried out dirty tasks to keep him in power, but did not have a role in the Zanu PF leadership, although they didn’t realise it until now.

Editor’s Memo,Dumisani Muleya

Happyton Bonyongwe,Constantine Chiwenga and Robert Mugabe
Happyton Bonyongwe,Constantine Chiwenga and Robert Mugabe

Having helped Mugabe to come to power during the liberation war, the war veterans thought that he owed them forever. Yet the veteran leader did not think so.

Even if Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, whom the ex-combatants want to impose in power to replace him, tried this week to downplay the fallout over the succession battle things won’t be the same again. The consequences will be serious, particularly given that senior military commanders are behind the war veterans.

Mugabe didn’t mince his words.

He labelled war veterans dissidents and threatened to crush them like he did former Zipra army deserters during the Gukurahundi era when 20 000 innocent civilians were massacred by security forces in Midlands and Matabeleland regions.

Of course, Mugabe’s threats and references to the killings were reckless and callous, given the grisly atrocities his regime committed against fellow compatriots merely for their political choice and identity inconvenient to his one-party state project. He showed lack of remorse and venom, but the point was made:

war veterans now find themselves on the wrong side of his wrath even if they were his most effective – and often violent – henchmen.

However, by declaring war on the ex-combatants, the very force which got him into power in the first place and kept him there, Mugabe drew the battle lines with the military.

In his seminal book, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule, Milan W. Svolik says all authoritarian regimes must resolve two fundamental conflicts. First, dictators face threats from the masses they rule – this is the problem of authoritarian control.

A second, separate challenge arises from the elites that surround the dictators –the problem of authoritarian power-sharing.

Crucially, whether and how dictators resolve these two problems is shaped by the repressive environment in which authoritarian politics takes place: in a dictatorship, no independent authority has the power to enforce arrangements among key actors and violence is the ultimate arbiter of conflict.

The grave headache though is that the authoritarian ruler usually faces a complicated quandary: the dictator has to rely on repression to prevent popular uprisings, but this creates a moral hazard, for “the very resources that enable the regime’s repressive agents to suppress its oppositions also empower them to act against the regime itself”.

Svolik says the degree to which dictators choose to empower security forces is determined by the strength of the popular opposition they face. When the threat to the regime is minimal, the dictator need not empower the military that much, thus facilitating his “perfect political control”.

Conversely, when the popular threat is extreme, the dictator must rely on, and fully empower, the army, whose power subsequently crowds out that of the ruler in a delicate equilibrium of military tutelage.

The most unstable and interesting scenario occurs when the popular opposition both internal and outside is strong; creating conditions of brinkmanship bargaining.

Here, a complicated strategic calculus develops between the dictator and the military. On the one hand, the army seeks to leverage its influence and to threaten the dictator’s power to obtain control and influence, including on such contentious issues as succession.

On the other hand, the dictator questions the resolve of the military and attempts to push the envelope. Military overthrow of the dictator occurs when the dictator underestimates the military threat and rocks the boat too much.
This is where we are now in Zimbabwe: the brinkmanship stage between Mugabe and the military. It’s an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. The question is: Who will blink first?

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