Army in a fix over elections

By Gift Phiri

The top leadership of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) appears torn between the old and new order after they dodged a crucial press briefing convened in Harare on Wednesday to allay fears that the army may not accept a Zanu PF defeat at the forthcoming polls.

Zimbabwe national army Commander Lieutenant-General Philip Valerio Sibanda is pictured after a press briefing
Zimbabwe national army Commander Lieutenant-General Philip Valerio Sibanda is pictured after a press briefing

There were swirling questions about the absence of ZDF commander, Philip Valerio Sibanda, and other top members of the command element at the media briefing held at the ZDF House, in the capital city’s central business district.

Previous military press briefings were held at the King George VI Barracks, which houses the Zimbabwe National Army and Air Force of Zimbabwe headquarters — now renamed Josiah Magama Tongogara Barracks.

Analysts canvassed by the Daily News opined that by staying away from such a crucial media briefing, the ZDF’s command element may still be caught up in a time warp, whereby the declaration issued by army spokesperson, Colonel Overson Mugwisi — which could have been meant for the international community — did not sit well with their convictions.

Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) spokesperson Colonel Overson Mugwisi
Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) spokesperson Colonel Overson Mugwisi

On Wednesday, Mugwisi declared that the uniformed forces will accept the outcome of the July 30 historic election, whichever way the result goes.

It’s the first general election since the army forced 94-year-old Robert Mugabe to resign and thrust Emmerson Mnangagwa into power.

Mnangagwa, 75, faces a strong challenge from 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa, an opponent who did not fight in the war against minority white rule.

In the previous polls, the ZDF has made it clear that it would only back leaders who fought in the country’s 1970s war of liberation, heightening fears that the army may not accept an outcome that produces a president with no liberation war credentials.

Political analysts said given the raft of past prejudicial statements by senior ZDF members, including by Constantino Chiwenga — the general who led the intervention that toppled Mugabe last November — one can appreciate concerns about the military’s bona fides in this unprecedented declaration.

But that Mugwisi did not make any attempt to dispel or make reference to claims by Chiwenga, who doubles up as the Defence minister, that the July 30 elections were an extension of Operation Restore Legacy and that the military intervention will only end after Mnangagwa has been voted into office, betrays lack of consensus on the issue.

Mugwisi ducked and dived when the press fielded questions about the apparent trust deficit in the military declaration that it will uphold the Constitution when it abrogated the same charter when it deployed itself in November to dethrone Mugabe.

Piers Pigou, a senior consultant at the International Crisis Group, said it was unfortunate that Sibanda was nowhere near to be seen at the press conference as the nation wanted to hear the declaration from the horse’s mouth.

“It is a great shame that ZDF commander, … Sibanda, did not make this address, that he did not acknowledge that past statements had fostered concerns that they recognise and that he did not unequivocally state that the ZDF would support the results of the election process,” said Pigou.

Political analyst Maxwell Saungweme questioned why Mugwisi did not address deputy Finance minister Terrence Mukupe’s statements that the military did not remove Mugabe to allow MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa to take over.

Terrence Mukupe
Terrence Mukupe

The comments by the rookie junior minister Mukupe — which echoed warnings that the military often made under the Mugabe regime — attracted opprobrium and scorn on social media and prompted Simon Khaya Moyo, the acting Information minister, to describe them as “unlawful, reckless, improper, uncalled for and thus totally condemnable”.

Saungweme said Mugwisi also did not dispel Zanu PF political commissar Engelbert Rugeje’s statements warning the electorate in Masvingo that if they do not vote for the ruling party, there was going to be a repeat of the 2008 scenario where serious cases of violence were reported, leading to the late MDC founding leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulling out of the presidential race.

To underline there was nothing of magnitude to deduce or extract from Mugwisi’s “political stunt disguised as a presser which points to any real change or departure from the past,” Saungweme said the spokesperson also did not dispel Masvingo Provincial Affairs minister Josiah Hungwe, who told an audience in Chiredzi that if Mnangagwa could shoot his way to power last November, then there was nothing to stop him from doing the same to keep office.

“The fact that he calculatingly, ponderously and suavely prevaricated and fudged on taking these claims head-on in his presser, means he was just a uniformed military spokesperson, playing a ‘Comical Ali’, with the real elephant in the house — military involvement in elections,” Saungweme said referring to Saddam Hussein’s former spin doctor who earned international notoriety and the nickname “Comical Ali” for his daily media briefings during the Iraq conflict which contradicted the reality of the United States-led advance on Baghdad.

“Such deceitfulness, fraudulence, slyness and sneakiness by a military officer playing politics with words, while denying the same is not only chimerical but oxymoronic and politically unsophisticated.”

Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London said Mugwisi’s statement was “for international consumption”.

Speaking on Mugwisi’s rejection of MDC allegations that soldiers had been deployed in rural areas to campaign for Zanu PF and intimidate opponents, Chan said the army will surely make its presence less obvious.

“Whether it will step back entirely is a very good question. This is where the opposition does need to be skilful in using social media for real time depictions of any military or securitised intervention against the campaigning,” Chan told the Daily News.

“It seems to me the opposition has no social media or citizen reporting strategy of any sort. In a modern election, this is a great oversight. The use of social media is very possible. Zimbabwe is very wired up and good WiFi extends into a great deal of the rural interior. But the MDC party protocols on how and when to deploy it are unknown.”

Political analyst Richard Mahomva said Mugwisi’s submission on the army’s ceding of loyalty to a president with or without war credentials represents a broad rhetoric shift by the establishment in its bid to market Zimbabwean politics as more democratic.

“The sentiment is part of a strategic scheme to harbour diplomatic symphathies for the seemingly repentant establishment following the fall of … Mugabe in 2017,” he told the Daily News.

“This a combative submission to the generously misconstrued role of the ZDF on its position in the election and it silently nullifies the opposition’s continued blame on military intervention on State issues.

“It is the appropriate thing that the army has clarified it’s position beyond the given. On the other hand, its expression of impartiality may project Zanu PF in a positive light following the continued ruling party’s susceptibility to negative campaign due to its proximity to the military.”

A peace and security analyst and doctoral researcher, Josphat Munetsi, told the Daily News that Mugwisi’s statement was a very welcome development given the sensitives around the role of the military in the forthcoming harmonised elections; more particularly if it is viewed through the prism of the 2002 straight jacket statement, the 2008 elections, the November 2017 transition and the ‘‘alleged’’ role of the army in the Zanu PF primaries.

“While the army has a checkered history heavily littered with their involvement in politics, one must appreciate the changing nature of civil-military relations post the November 2017 transition which is a departure from the dark days of the previous administration,” Munetsi told the Daily News.

“The army is very mindful of the gravitas that they accrued during the transition and it would be foolhardy for them to recklessly squander that.

“Be that as it may, that the top leadership of the current administration has a heavy military component feeds into the conclusion that this statement must, of necessity, be taken with a truckload of salt.

“That in itself may not be wishful thinking and has a firm historical basis, however, it must also be realised that institutions and societies have a capacity to re-brand themselves given the changing nature of regional and global realpolitik and the army is not an exclusion,” he said. Daily News