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Apr 24, 2014 | Commentary

The prospects of reforming Zimbabwe’s security sector appear bleak. Opposition activists and international observers hoped that security sector reform (SSR) would finally top the political agenda following the post-2008 election violence, in which the security services were heavily implicated. However, the power-sharing Government of National Unity (GNU) that resulted from the post-election political stalemate allowed Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party to retain control of all security portfolios.

Moreover, the Global Political Agreement (GPA), which formed the backbone of the National Unity government, made only oblique references to SSR. After hastily called elections in August of 2013, Mugabe and ZANU-PF were able to regain absolute control of the government, pushing the opposition parties out of the GNU. Talks of reform have all but disappeared behind a series of deeply entrenched interests, ideology, and a general sense of political malaise.

The need for SSR became especially noticeable following ZANU-PF’s loss of a constitutional referendum in 2000, after which the security services have all come to overtly align themselves with Mugabe and his political party. The leadership of the military, police and Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) were all appointed by Mugabe and made little effort to hide their preference for or support of him as president. In December 2012, for example, leaders of Zimbabwe’s security forces, including the army and air force commanders, police commissioner, and head of prisons, all attended a ZANU-PF party conference.

Preference for ZANU-PF among the security services has often translated into public declarations of support. However, security officials have also often gone well beyond mere public rhetoric – by being repeatedly implicated in electoral intimidation and manipulation, arbitrary arrest, torture, and the extra-judicial killing of regime opponents, especially following the 2008 elections.

Zimbabwe’s security sector has a profound conflict of interest. Far from being impartial, they have a stated political agenda and are ready, willing, and able to rig the system to achieve it. The problem is especially acute for the CIO, which has no legislative framework to guide its operations. Instead, it is structured as a department within the president’s office, leading to repeated abuses and causing some to argue that it acts as the intelligence arm of ZANU-PF.

SSR also faces other considerable obstacles in Zimbabwe. Perhaps the most significant is the close bond between ZANU-PF and many in the security services, owing largely to their shared history.  According to Human Rights Watch, the bulk of current leaders of Zimbabwe’s security and defence forces were part of ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army), which was the pre-independence military wing of ZANU during the country’s liberation struggle. This legacy created a formidable identity and a strong sense of solidarity among those who took part in the struggle to end white rule.

To senior government and military officials, only those with liberation credentials are fit to wield power. As a result, many generals and other ‘securocrats’ in Zimbabwe continue to support Mugabe and ZANU-PF, and view security sector reform as a rearguard action by imperialists and other enemies of the revolution, such as the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, civil society groups, and a variety of international observers. Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantine Chiwenga makes this point especially clear, in reference to the notion of working with any other political entity: “we are different. Just like oil and water, we cannot mix. As the defence forces we will not respect or entertain people who do not value the ideals of the liberation struggle…no one can make us turn our back on the ideals of the liberation struggle.”

More practical concerns constitute another obstacle to reforming Zimbabwe’s security sector. Some senior security officials fear prosecution and worry that any reform program would leave them exposed, due to their involvement in electoral repression and other rights abuses. Many also speculate that any reforms would carry financial repercussions, since security officials often use their position to build substantial financial holdings.  Economic benefits include revenues from patronage networks used by Mugabe to maintain his power, including large farms appropriated from white farmers during the country’s notorious ‘land reform’ program, as well as more recent proceeds from Zimbabwe’s recently discovered Marange diamond fields.

Yet the biggest barrier to security sector reform is the absence of any political will or momentum to alter the status quo. The lack of political will is shaped by the economic and personal considerations of security officials, but it’s also heavily influenced by the current political landscape in Zimbabwe. There is no domestic lobby with the necessary influence and base of support to push SSR in today’s political climate. The GPA made only vague references to SSR, and none of the major regional interlocutors have ever placed SSR suitably high on the agenda. When ZANU-PF retained control of all of the security portfolios under the GNU, it was a tacit endorsement of the status quo.

The security services are determined to ensure their centrality to Zimbabwe’s political and economic life, and have enmeshed themselves in a symbiotic relationship with the ruling party. For now, ZANU-PF needs the military to maintain political pre-eminence and repress the opposition, while the military needs ZANU-PF to ensure its place of economic privilege and protect it from prosecution. So long as this symbiosis remains in effect, the reform project in Zimbabwe will likely remain stalled.

Yet the current lack of SSR also carries inherent risks. Many analysts speculate that Mugabe may be the only person capable of holding the balance of power between the generals and his own party’s factions. But Mugabe is no longer a young man, even reportedly receiving treatment for an unknown illness in Malaysia. It is unclear what the security services would do if Mugabe died in office or tried to hand power to a successor, especially one they didn’t believe would safeguard their interests. Until the security sector is reformed and an appropriate relationship with the civilian government is made, the future of security governance in Zimbabwe will remain under a dark shadow.


Eric Muller is a Research and Communications Intern at the Centre for Security Governance.