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Dec 2, 2013 | Commentary

Politics and the Army – Can the two Mix?

In most nascent and emerging democracies the world over, it has become abundantly clear that, the ‘military factor’ does not bode well for democratic consolidation. In the same vein, it is trite to argue that, mixing politics and the military is like mixing oil and water – the two never mix. However, there is a groundswell of interest amongst a diverse pool of Zimbabweans on the need to re-professionalise the Zimbabwean military force. Many Zimbabweans also share the widely held belief that, an apolitical and neutral army remains a hallmark for democracy in any society.

When one Belongs to the Barracks and not near the Electoral Booth

There has been talk around dissociating the ‘men and women in uniform’ from the mainstream Zimbabwean body politics. There is a widely held view which points to the fact that, politics is toxic to the military – as evidenced by the negative role and influence of the army in the Zimbabwean electoral processes. Hence, for purposes of maintaining credibility, impartiality, professionalism and the integrity of the armed forces – the general citizenry contend that the soldiers should have a ‘hands off’ approach to politics. Such sentiments and feelings have resonated with most citizens after the realisation that, the Zimbabwean military has been playing a negative and proactive role in Zimbabwean politics, mainly through electioneering as from the year 2000 to the present.

Securocrats have constantly made reckless political statements by issuing political pronouncements that they will not accept, recognise or salute a leader without any liberation war credentials. They have also parroted the narrative that, the country exists as a result of the bullet and as such; the country will ‘never be handed to’ the MDC party through the ballot. Naturally, this means that any ‘future or sitting’ president of Zimbabwe should come from the party that participated in the liberation struggle. Herein lies the paradox – what then is the essence of voting whilst the army cannot accept or respect the electorate’s choice and electoral outcomes?

Reign of Terror and Harvest of Fear

Knox Chitiyo an eminent Zimbabwean SSR scholar posits that, in 2008, members of the armed forces, in cahoots with  para-military groups, including the war veterans and youth brigades, established militia/torture bases euphemistically termed ‘command centres’ in rural communities in Masvingo, Mashonaland South and Manicaland provinces and elsewhere. Empirical and anecdotal evidence has also indicated that, most villagers – especially those suspected to be (supporters or sympathisers) of the opposition political party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were forced to attend day and night indoctrination sessions called night vigils (pungwes) where ‘traitors’/‘sell-outs’ were tortured, inflicting falanga, or the beating the soles of the feet. (see Chitiyo 2009).

The ultimate goal was to force the opposition supporters (either real or perceived) to repent and denounce their allegiance to the MDC. The military has also been further singled out as perpetrators of political violence during the post-March 2008 era through the operation code-named Makavhotera Papi? (‘Who did you vote for?’). This exercise of inquiry was carried out across the breadth and length of the Zimbabwean rural communities. The ‘reign of terror’ that was unleashed also resulted in the ‘harvest of fear’ amongst the ordinary rural populace.

Calls for Military Reform: ‘No Magic Bullet – No Instant Coffee’

Questions abound. Is there a magic bullet that can be used in seeking to address the partisan conduct, contamination and involvement of the military in the Zimbabwean body politics? Arguing against SSR, the political elites, securocrats and the military ‘aristocracy’ have often stated that, the army is the bulwark that can protect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interest of the country. In this respect, the relentless call against the dabbling and involvement of the military in the Zimbabwean political economy continues to hit a snag. It is also apparent that – in the context of Zimbabwe – SSR is not an instant process, like instant coffee. Rather, when and if it is to be effected, it will be a gradual and evolutionary process.


Gift Mwonzora is a PhD Candidate at Rhodes University in South Africa and a lecturer with the Zimbabwe Open University (ZOU).