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May 9, 2013 | Commentary

Hope for security sector reform in Zimbabwe is disappearing quickly as the political crisis in the country drives a deepening wedge into the weak coalition government. With the general elections tentatively set for 29 June, the time needed to ratchet down the tension is in short supply. If an agreement to keep the security forces out of the elections cannot be made, the election itself may prove to be inconsequential, as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party and its allies in the security sector may clamp down on their control of the country, inhibiting any further reform progress.

Following the 2008 general elections, Zimbabwe’s political system was on the brink of being torn apart by political violence and subterfuge.  The long ruling Zanu-PF, party led by the notoriously oppressive Robert Mugabe, lost its majority in the House of Assembly. The popular vote had instead chosen the two Movements for Democratic Change (MDC) parties, but Mugabe’s hold on the reins of power in the country necessitated a power-sharing agreement. This was brokered in September 2008 by the South African Development Community (SADC) and South African President Thabo Mbeki. It allowed Mugabe to retain the presidency, but ceded some control to MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister, and MDC-M leader Arthur Mutambara as Deputy Prime Minister. Known as the Global Political Agreement (GPA), it covers a wide variety of governance issues, including specific details on the role of the security sector. These sought to limit the influence of the police, military and intelligence community in the national politik, and to set the stage for security sector reform (SSR) in the country.

Despite the acceptance of the GPA, Zimbabwe’s political triumvirate has been locked in a duel over the need for SSR. It is no secret that the security sector in Zimbabwe has played a dominant role in the political process and has used its influence to coerce and intimidate voters and political aspirants alike. The recent crisis has further laid bare the loyalties of the military and police leadership. Police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri has recently stated that he has no interest in meeting with Tsvangirai. Likewise, the head of the Zimbabwean Defense Forces and chairman of the Joint Operations Command that controls the Zimbabwean security services, General Constantine Chiwenga, is a vocal supporter of Mugabe and a powerful member of the Zanu-PF party himself.

Mugabe has resisted efforts by the international community to provide assistance or oversight of the election process, citing undesirable influence and manipulation by international actors like the United Nations. Indeed, Tsvangirai’s demands for reform have been characterized by Zanu-PF leadership as western plots attempting to rob Zimbabwe of the freedom it achieved during its Liberation War. It is also this liberation obsessed ideology that presents one of the greatest barriers to SSR in the country. Mugabe and his close circle of securocrats who effectively run the country all have ties to the liberation war and those that they fought with. This has engendered a deep mistrust of those who were not involved and wish to change the system to something that doesn’t reflect the liberation culture of the leadership. Reforms would do just that, and as such have been met with harsh opposition from entrenched interest groups and individuals.

The probability that Mugabe and the security forces will accept any election results that don’t provide Zanu-PF with a victory is slim. Mugabe has shown little interest in truly adhering to the democratic process outside of going through the motions. The 2008 elections were rife with Zanu-PF inspired violence and, despite not achieving a majority of the vote, Mugabe is still President vis-à-vis the GPA. If the MDC parties win the election, which appears to be becoming less and less likely, Mugabe could forcibly assert his control. If Mugabe wins, the GPA would be in jeopardy of being thrown out entirely. Either way, the MDC parties do not have the influence or clout within the governance structure of the country necessary to prevent either of these situations from happening.

Worryingly still are the uncertain prospects of what might happen if Zanu-PF and Mugabe do win. Mugabe is 89 years old and the question of his successor has started to cause rifts within the party. Last year there were reports that Mugabe had chosen Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa to take his role, though other more recent reports show that Vice-President Joice Mujur also leads his own camp within the party. How the various police, military and intelligence chiefs within the party will choose their loyalties is also uncertain, as they are powerful actors in and of themselves. What is certain, however, is the effect that such a schism in the leadership of the country will have. The precarious nature of the Zimbawean economy, still stricken by inflation and high unemployment, is dependent on strong leadership to push the country forward. But if there chaos ensues as a result of infighting within the security sector leadership and their political counterparts, the results could be disastrous for Zimbabwe.

It is increasingly likely that the security sector reforms will not occur. The political will on the part of the MDC parties is not backed by the political capacity to see them through. The influence of the security sector is too deeply entrenched within the body politic of the country, and its interests in the status quo are matched only by the political elite’s. Mugabe’s rule over the country may be coming to an end, but the governance structure he has setup will inevitably resist change to the detriment of the country as a whole.


Sean Jellow is a Research and Communications Intern at the Security Governance Group.