Implications of a politicised military

In this article, first published in the African Security Review journal on December 3 2017, scholars Godfrey Maringira, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of the Western Cape, and Tyanai Masiya, a post-doctoral fellow at the Human Science Research Council in Cape Town, analyse the threats posed by militaries to modern democratic rule, especially in the Zimbabwean context.

Godfrey Maringira & Tyanai Masiya

This paper, serialised by the Zimbabwe Independent, reveals the ways in which Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) generals have played a political role in the Zimbabwean elections, an issue which is both a political threat and a security threat to the state. It is argued that the ways in which ZDF generals engage in the political process goes against Section 208(2) of the constitution of Zimbabwe, which summarily states that the military must be apolitical. In substantiating this argument, the paper presents and analyses various public speeches made by army generals.

In post-colonial Africa, the military has been and continues to be both a political threat and a security threat in some countries through the ways in which it aids regimes in manipulating election results. This paper reveals the ways in which the generals have been a threat to the opposition and the electorate, and how they have propped up former president Robert Mugabe and his political party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front) (Zanu PF).

It is also argued that part of the explanation as to why the military involves itself in politics has to do with the privileges extended by the civilian political leaders in return for the military’s support, especially during and after elections. In substantiating this argument, public speeches made by military generals in Zimbabwe — and especially those made in support of Mugabe’s regime — are presented and analysed.

The paper draws from civil–military relations theory which postulates that, in modern democratic states, the military has to subordinate itself to civilian choices of leadership. The idea of military professionalism is also presented and discussed, a concept which helps with understanding the military organisation as a profession. The army generals’ public statements are then presented in order to highlight the unprofessional conduct of the ZDF which has influenced elections.

Military vis-à-vis democratic polls
The government in a functional democracy is chosen by the people; for a country to be called a democracy, its army should observe strict political neutrality so that voters can exercise their right to vote without fear of retribution. Election processes are vehicles through which political power is retained or pursued and social differences are highlighted.

The periodic election of political leaders is conducted under conditions of universal suffrage, with civil and political freedoms enjoyed by all citizens. Thus, where polities approximate a democracy and the military is politically neutral, the rules of the electoral game provide powerful incentives for office-seeking incumbents and challengers alike to compete for voters’ approval in the electoral contest.

The holding of free, fair and transparent elections enables citizens to bear significant influence on the choices made by their leaders and, subsequently, the policy choices that are made by the elected officials, while the military should act within its confines by providing security to all citizens.

In this regard, a democracy where the military does not interfere with elections provides the means through which populations can peacefully and regularly oust inept, inefficient and corrupt governments. At the same time, democracies facilitate mechanisms for people to retain more efficient, successful regimes, thus tending to make the quality of governance on average higher in the long run.

The essence of citizen control in democracies is captured by Amartya Sen, who states that considering the effects of democracy relative to authoritarian regimes: we have to consider the political incentives that operate on governments and on the persons and groups that are in office. The rulers have the incentive to listen to what people want if they have to face their criticism and seek their support in elections.

Therefore, the minimalist purpose of elections is to make the holding of political office conditional upon the expressed nominal preferences of the public, and not the military. In a democracy, those seeking to be in power only get what they want, i.e. power, if the people get what they want, i.e. good public policy.

In other words, in democracies, elections make the holding of power provisional and policymaking efficient; they are an orderly, regularised, and omnipresent threat to withdraw public consent. Anticipating accountability considerations among voters and competition for office, politicians attempt to act with “responsiveness” to critical mass audiences. They deliver benefits and position their appeals so as to advance their chances for election or re-election.

However, in a context where the civilian leadership is shielded by the military, it neither has a motivation to respond to the demands of the masses nor to relinquish power on the basis of the ballot. Hence, democracy is important because it enables the people, at periodic intervals, to hold their rulers accountable and replace the government of the day if it fails to enact policies responsive to people’s aspirations.

Elections enable people to choose representatives who will respond to their developmental needs and concerns, and give the people the power to hold the government to account on an ongoing basis. When citizens are provided with a direct “voice” in political life, society’s trust of and willingness to co-operate with the state in achieving development is strengthened.
However, in the Zimbabwean case, the lack of military professionalism is demonstrated through the military’s meddling in elections, which appears to have the effect of stifling the will, choice and participation of citizens in the selection of political leaders who are not affiliated with Zanu PF and Mugabe.

Professionalism: Contextual analysis
When discussing the military, it is of concern to both scholarship and policy practice to engage with and understand the concept of military professionalism. While the concept of professionalism is difficult to define in a definitive way, its basic tenets have to do with the integrity, honour and competence of the military as an organisation.

In his approach to civil–military relations, which speaks broadly to military professionalism, Samuel Huntington argues that the military has to subordinate itself to civilian politics and leadership. This is what Huntington calls “objective civilian control”, which refers to the military needing to pay attention to the choices made by civilians. Analysing the political events in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, it is noted by Barany that the military has to act democratically to enhance peace rather than pursuing violence.

In explaining the role of the military, Morris Janowitz refers to it as a “constabulary force”, i.e. the ways in which the military becomes a protector of civilians from any threat. In situations where the military becomes a protector of the regime in power rather than the citizens, scholars have argued that the military does this for certain political benefits that have to be understood as “mutual accommodation” between army generals and politicians. Through this “mutual accommodation”, politicians provide the military with economic and political benefits and privileges and, in return, senior officers such as army generals offer political support through the gun.

For Karawan, in North African countries it is in fact the civilian politicians who turn to the military for political support. However, the concept of military professionalism in practice is contested by scholars who argue that the sole client of the military is the state — hence there is an overwhelming reason why the military has to be political.

For Rubin, army generals in the Middle East have always maintained that politics is too important to be left to civilians. However, what is not clear is the degree to which the military should be political. For Finer, the military is quite disciplined and so can be trusted to take over political power: “Instead of asking why the military engages in politics, we ought to surely ask why they ever do otherwise.”

In this case, Finer is of the view that the military should be an actor in politics. Similarly, Harb contends that, military disengagement from politics is never final and complete, while in the Brazilian context, Stepan argues that the military has a political function, i.e. it is not isolated from politics.

Even though the view that the military should be involved in politics has been posited, it is not clear to what extent it should be involved in politics.

In this paper it is argued that the involvement of the military in electoral politics such as in the case of Zimbabwe goes against the practice of military professionalism. If the military is allowed to participate in electoral processes then this means that it is likely to defend the regime that best serves military interests rather than the interests of the voters.

In the Zimbabwean context, Section 208(2) of the constitution maintains that the military has to be apolitical and must refrain from supporting any political party or politician. Hence it is asserted that the involvement of the military in electoral politics is not only unprofessional but a threat to the security of the people. (To be continued…)

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