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Zimbabwe: Military might makes things right

By Sandile Maera in Harare
Posted on Monday, 21 September 2009 00:00

The future of the shaky political agreement between the two leading

parties could yet be decided by the same military men who organised

last year’s repression of the MDC

Zimbabwe’s generals, weighed down by medals and a history of oppression, enthusiastically salute their commander-in-chief and President Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Their loyalty is understandable: they have much to thank him for. Over the past decade he has presided over a thoroughgoing militarisation of Zimbabwe – giving sweeping powers and patronage to the military – as a way of shoring up the rule of the increasingly reviled party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

Most of the generals are also looking to Comrade Mugabe to protect them amid growing calls for their prosecution for gross human rights abuses – although a significant minority now believe the President would be unable to guarantee their position in Zimbabwe’s new order.

Outside overt military regimes like Guinea or Mauritania, Zimbabwe was Africa’s most militarised state until ZANU-PF lost last year’s national elections and was forced to agree a power-sharing deal with its arch-enemies in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which left Mugabe as President and made MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai prime minister.

The military remains powerful and wealthy under the political deal. President Mugabe had appointed military officers to head parastatal companies, the revenue service and the notorious Central Intelligence Organisation. They are also the recipients of some prime confiscated farmland and millions of dollars of state assets in deals brokered by Mugabe’s financial apparatchik, Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono. Today, much of Zimbabwe’s private wealth is held by companies either controlled by serving or retired military officers or in which they have a substantial stake.

For example, former Army Commander, General Solomon Mujuru, who has holdings in several mining and agricultural ventures, is one of Zimbabwe’s richest men. He is also the husband of vice-president Joyce Mujuru and is widely regarded as a king- or queen-maker within ZANU-PF. Although Gen. Mujuru is trying to adapt and appears to believe he can maintain influence, many of his military colleagues distrust the new order, particularly Tsvangirai’s MDC.

Many are openly contemptuous of Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist who did not fight in Zimbabwe’s liberation war against Ian Smith’s Rhodesian regime. Senior officers, most of whom boast of their liberation war credentials, have long insisted they would not salute Tsvangirai. They profess undying loyalty to President Mugabe, whose own military career is non-existent and who rose to the top of ZANU-PF after the mysterious death of his political rival Josiah Tongogara. Many Zimbabweans argue that Tsvangirai, who has fought off state assassins on several occasions, is a much braver man than the bookish Mugabe.

Political superiors?

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Emmerson Mnangagwa
Minister of Defence

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The hard-line generals distrust Tsvangirai for good reason: under the aegis of the Joint Operations Command (JOC), the generals, together with police and intelligence chiefs, unleashed a relentless campaign of beatings, rapes and murders against MDC activists and their supporters in the second round of presidential elections last year. These crimes have been well documented and the line of responsibility up to Emmerson Mnangagwa, as chairman of JOC, and Mugabe as commander-in-chief can be clearly drawn. Many Zimbabweans, and not just MDC supporters, want the perpetrators to be held accountable and expect Tsvangirai to establish that principle. A new report by the MDC claims that more than 200 of their supporters were murdered by named senior army officers and top government officials, while hundreds were tortured and maimed.

However, since becoming premier in February, Tsvangirai has walked an awkward line between confronting the military (in the knowledge that he has no leverage over the security services) and securing the release of his supporters being illegally detained.

Although some officers are prepared to negotiate with Tsvangirai, others believe they have to stop the MDC in its tracks if they are to protect their positions. Their strategy is to prepare a new campaign of political violence in readiness for the referendum on a new constitution and subsequent elections next year. The youth ministry is recruiting thousands of militias for training and deployment in coordination with the police, army, rural schools and some parastatal companies. The Zimbabwe Republic Police have started recruiting 20,000 youths, while schools and parastatals (such as the Grain Marketing Board and Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation) have also been instructed to employ militias. But ZANU-PF now finds its hard to pay for its youth militias now that Tsvangirai and finance minister Tendai Biti have established some degree of control over the national economy.

Two South African parliamentarians who were in the country at the end of July have also reported increased paramilitary activities in the countryside, with reports emerging that the country is talking to Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea to fund its election war chest. “The strategy is to make the next elections even more violent than last year’s elections,” revealed a top officer familiar with the strategy. He said the military thinks ZANU-PF will be in a weaker position at the next elections due to Mugabe’s advanced age and succession disputes.

“The only way for ZANU-PF to win is to launch a violent campaign,” said the officer. “Many people, especially those in rural areas, are still running scared because of last year’s brutal campaign. Deployment of the military and militias is now underway to drum up support for ZANU-PF’s position under the current constitution-making process.” Failure by Tsvangirai to guarantee senior generals’ immunity from prosecution is a bone of contention among the top brass. “Generals are currently the de facto leaders of this country as they wield all the power. If Tsvangirai comes to power, most of them fear they will go straight to prison or even The Hague,” said the officer.

The MDC has called for comprehensive security sector reforms to ‘depoliticise’ the army and police, and to transform them into professional forces that owe their allegiance to the nation and not political parties, by setting up a new and independent commission. “It should be the responsibility of this commission to review and oversee senior appointments and promotions, as well as general working conditions and salaries of all personnel,” said the MDC in August.

The army and other security agencies stand accused of human rights violations dating back to the early 1980s when thousands of people, mostly in Matebeleland and Midlands Provinces, were massacred by soldiers from the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade.

the upcoming elections, the army’s preferred candidate, should President Mugabe retire, is defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is accused of masterminding much of last year’s political violence.

Army commander Gen. Philip Sibanda and his Air Force counterpart Air Marshall Perence Shiri saluted Tsvangirai during the national ‘Heroes Day’ commemorations in August, but Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, Police commissioner-general Augustine Chihuri, Prisons commissioner-general Paradzai Zimondi and other senior officers have not yet done so. “The generals who saluted Tsvangirai are now being branded sell-outs. Chiwenga and the other hard-line generals are insisting they will only salute their commander-in-chief, Mugabe,” the insider said.

Another problem is a growing indiscipline within the army and other security agencies. “Guns have been withdrawn from most junior officers. Mugabe has already been informed that young officers can no longer be trusted because of disgruntlement over poor salaries,” said the officer. At the height of the cash shortages in the country, some soldiers looted banks, shops and farms.

Sparkling temptations?

Meanwhile, security forces still hold on to the vast Marange diamond fields in the east of the country, risking Zimbabwe’s expulsion from the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme – an agreement governing the global diamond trade. An official from the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC), responsible for mining diamonds, said the military has refused to leave the area. “We are currently mining side-by-side with soldiers. We suspect that it is the top military brass who benefit because they are buying themselves expensive new cars and other properties,” said the ZMDC source. Activists say money being raised from the illegal sale of diamonds is funding militias and being used to prepare for a possible election next year once a constitutional revision is finalised.

Zimbabwe Blood Diamonds Campaign coordinator Gabriel Shumba said: “We can confirm that over 300 people have died and hundreds of others have been maimed by government security forces that are in the area allegedly to stem illegal mining, but are in fact illegally extracting the diamonds themselves.”?

Villagers across the country still face harassment by soldiers and militias for voting for the opposition last year; several supporters and officials, including MPs, are currently being hauled before the courts on trumped-up charges. The MDC, which risks losing its parliamentary majority due to the arrests, is demanding an investigation of attorney general Johannes Tomana’s indictment of MDC legislators.

At least seven MDC MPs face charges, and five have already been convicted of crimes ranging from violence to kidnapping. The latest to be arrested is deputy youth minister Thamsanqa Mahlangu, for allegedly stealing a phone from controversial war veterans leader and self-styled ‘commander in-chief’ of farm invasions, Joseph Chinotimba.