HomeAnalysisPolls and militarising the village

Polls and militarising the village

A decisive factor to whether Zimbabwe can hold credible, free and fair elections in July that will bring domestic and international legitimacy is the role of the military, whose leadership for decades has interfered in the country’s civilian and electoral affairs.

Zimbabwe Democracy Institute

According to the Global Militarisation Index (GMI) 2017, Zimbabwe is ranked amongst the top 10 most militarised countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and top 75 globally. The GMI shows the relative weight and importance of the military apparatus of one state in relation to its society. To measure militarisation levels, the GMI compares military expenditure with the country’ gross domestic product (GDP) and its health expenditure (as share of its GDP); the contrast between the total number of (para)military forces and the number of medical doctors and the overall population; and the ratio of the number of heavy weapons systems available and the total population.

Zimbabwe’s increased militarisation and the military’s direct interference in the country’s civilian and political affairs came under the spotlight on November 15 last year, when the Zimbabwe Defence Forces leadership initiated “Operation Restore Legacy”, that led to the overthrow of former president Robert Mugabe. The new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, effectively came to power after a hybrid coup d’état. Euphoria of optimism swept across the country and the international community about the possibility of a fresh start for the country in the aftermath of the military takeover.

An increasing number of reports from key election stakeholders indicate that the “new dispensation” government has deployed soldiers in villages and communities across the country ahead of the 2018 election. Among the key stakeholders who made these reports are the private media and opposition parties, including the MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa and the National Patriotic Front led by Ambrose Mutinhiri. Empirical data is essential to back up these reports to ensure they are not mere allegations. Empirical evidence of military presence in villages throughout Zimbabwe could be a key indicator of the significant obstacles in the country’s ability to deliver credible, free and fair elections this year.

The overthrow of Mugabe is correctly identified by Gumbo (2018) as a “hybrid coup”, which combined:

  • A veto coup (removal of the ruling elite by the national army to protect the status quo from radical change); and
  • A palace coup (political structures of existing regimes through deep and secretive plotting and conspiracy by rivals of the president within the ruling group who connive with the military to constitutionally oust the serving leader in a usually bloodless, quick and effective manner with very little destruction). Soldiers in villages, and their political activities there, could influence thought leadership to avail strategic counter militarisation and electoral manipulation solutions ahead of the elections.
    There was, therefore, need to:
  • Investigate the veracity of these claims about the government’s decentralisation of the “militarisation” of the electoral environment to village level;
  • Unpack the implications of the presence of soldiers in villages on elections and possible electoral manipulation;
  • Examine the pre-election impact on voter behaviour;
  • Deduce the implications this militarisation and electoral manipulation has on the transition to a democratic dispensation; and
  • Provide thought leadership to key stakeholders to the 2018 election to assist in devising counter measures to facilitate transition to a democratic dispensation.

On numerous occasions, Mnangagwa has given public assurances that his government will deliver free and fair elections this year and oversee a transition to a democratic dispensation in Zimbabwe. The President has repeatedly emphasised that election observers from all the corners of the world are welcome to observe the elections.

Mnangagwa’s public statements about his commitment to free and fair elections have received mixed reactions ranging from cautious optimism to suspicion and scepticism.

Granted, the Mnangagwa government has a legitimacy deficit arising from the military coup that brought it to power and, as such, delivery of a credible, free and fair election would be a key benchmark towards re-engagement with the international community. But it is possible that promising democratic elections and inviting international donors could be a mere “boxticking” exercise.

As noted by Bishop and Hoeffler (2014), “the number of observed elections has steadily increased over time and it has become an internationally expected behaviour to invite election observers . . . designed to signal a democratic intention to donors and investors.”

This observation shows that conducting competitive polls, inviting election observers, and promises to hold free and fair elections have become part of an economically strategic approach by internationally isolated authoritarian regimes that struggle to get rid of the burden of illegitimacy.

Even where elections are conducted fairly well, “when authoritarian regimes lose elections, power is not automatically transferred. These regimes commit a form of manipulation after election day if they fail to accept the results and retain power through other means,” (Alvarez, et al 2008).

The 2018 election should be carefully and closely monitored to avoid a repeat of the 2008 elections that were characterised by extreme violence and electoral chicanery.

Mnangagwa’s public commitment to free and fair elections may amount to an “authoritarian retreat”. However, it is yet to be seen how he plans to achieve this because “whereas it is possible to have elections without democracy, it is virtually impossible to have democracy without (credible) elections,” (Olaniyan and Amao, 2015).

Meanwhile, the “authoritarian retreat” has charmed many, particularly in the West, to consider recasting their policy stances towards the Zanu PF government to give them another chance if the change is sincere and genuine. When assessing the post-Mugabe Zanu PF government it should be noted that:

  • Zanu PF has no experience in running state institutions without help from its patronage networks that include serving, undercover, and “strategically” retired military personnel; and
  • Freeing the electoral playfield cannot be achieved without eliminating the Zanu PF patronage network in key state institutions responsible for elections management. What this means is that, Mnangagwa and his government must be ready to break-free from the past, and the first step is to destroy the Zanu PF patronage system. Will president Mnangagwa and his military enforcers wilfully destroy this Zanu PF system that they spoke and fought so hard to restore in November 2017?

Following the November 2017 military coup, Mnangagwa and his “Team Lacoste” that presently dominates Zanu PF, have devised and are pursuing a political survival agenda anchored on the following “trinity for survival”:

  • To have a foothold in those constituencies that were previously won by the rival G40 faction in Zanu PF at National Assembly, Senate and council level;
  • To buttress the existing Zanu PF gerrymandering system to counter pressure from the MDC Alliance and other opposition groups; and
  • To gain domestic and international legitimacy through a cocktail of strategies that include a ploy to blinker and/or tweak perspectives in the international community (particularly Western superpowers) to see and believe that Zanu PF has transformed to become a pro-democracy entity.

Zanu PF has adopted a decentralised election campaign and voter mobilisation approach, which puts much emphasis on strict monitoring, evaluation and surveillance of members at cell (village) level, keeping strict records of such members and holding stratified person-to-person engagements and paying attention to villages. Given Zanu PF’s history of running militarised elections since 1980 this cell-based election campaign approach and the “militarisation” of the village came as no surprise. Decentralised military activities in a largely opaque terrain in villages usually go unnoticed when assessing the election environment and this usually leads to wrong conclusions.

The Mnangagwa administration, given its appetite for international recognition, is least likely to adopt overt tactics in the manipulation of the 2018 election.

Meanwhile, two key questions must be put forward:

  • Is the Zanu PF government not luring the international community through smokescreen electoral reforms?; and
  • In considering recasting foreign policy stances towards the Zanu PF government, is the international community fully aware of the factual electoral environment and reforms at hand in Zimbabwe apart from what is communicated by Zanu PF internationally?


Villages are indeed militarised, although reasons for militarisation seem to range from attempts to assist in implementation of the government command agriculture programme, assisting Zanu PF members in their campaign and maintaining peace and stability in communities.

However, these reasons weigh very light against the desire to manipulate the electoral environment ahead of 2018 elections. This study also emphasised that the command agriculture programme is part of the menu of electoral manipulation that has given Zanu PF a ticket to send soldiers into villages knowing that the “fear arousal” impact is an unavoidable electoral benefit accrued to Zanu PF. It also found no record of use of physical violence for election-related purposes by the military.

The study also concludes that the militarisation of the village has turned participation in July 2018 elections as a day of making survival choices among rural electorates and this survival and conflict prevention means voting Zanu PF. In short, no free and fair elections are expected in a climate of fear, in an environment where choices are made under psychological and physical threats of military reprisals.



  • Withdraw the military from villages and/or confine them in designated military points to avoid panic and fear created;
  • Nationwide voter and civic education to remove the fear intentionally or unintentionally caused by militarisation of communities to ensure that voters are assured of safety and peace no matter how they express their choices in the on-coming election;
  • Release of public notification and assurances through the state broadcaster and social media clearly condemning the work of Zanu PF politicians, traditional leaders and military personnel using soldiers in their campaigns and assure citizens that these activities are illegal and not sanctioned by government;
  • Conduct an inquiry into the militarisation of the village; prosecute individuals involved in militarising the village and military personnel involved;
  • Guarantee traditional leaders autonomy from Zanu PF patronage networks and compel them to publicly assert their independence from political control by government; and
  • Institute a security sector reform programme to depoliticise the military and re-assert its integrity.
  • Civil society
  • Conduct civic and voter education to limit the grave impacts of village military fear on voting patterns in the upcoming election;
  • Perform the watchdog role and expose electoral manipulation at all voting centres to ensure that election results are discredited based on valid facts;
  • Start pre-emptive planning for provision of safety nets for electorates to caution electorates from possible reprisals in the event that they choose to risk their lives by making their genuine choices that might disappoint military interests; and
  • Conduct a national inquiry into this militarisation of the village to come up with wider quantifications of its impacts in manipulating votes in favour of Zanu PF.

Opposition parties

  • Begin lobbying regional and international players to assist in setting up safety and security mechanisms to give voters security and safety assurances as they approach the election;
  • Spearhead a nationwide campaign against fear of the military in villages and grave impacts on their ability to vote freely. This can include engaging the government and pressuring it to make public assurances, cause military leaders to also make public assurances that they will honour the will of the people even if that will send Zanu PF out of power;
  • Do serious community voter education especially in rural areas to ensure that votes are cast as a free choice than a choice between peace and military reprisal; and
  • Create an election watch team that will be able to compile election results at all voting centres for use in cross-checking the authenticity of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission results released after conclusion of the election. This team should also be in a position to audit the voters’ roll to ensure that electoral chicanery therein is identified and exposed.

International community

  • Send election observers to observe the electoral environment in rural villages and assessment of electoral violence should go beyond physical violence to the psychological; and
  • Provide public assurances to voters that security and peace is guaranteed after votes and condemn the use of the military to orchestrate electoral manipulation on behalf of the ruling government.

Zimbabwe Democracy Institute is a policy think-tank and civil society institution.

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