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The case for security sector reforms in Zimbabwe

By Jacob Nkiwane

I was recently on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Boston. After touch-down at Logan airport, a crew member’s voice came on and announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with Delta airlines. We hope you enjoyed your journey with us and we will be glad to welcome you back.

The head of Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Happyton Bonyongwe, left, with Constantine Chiwenga, the commander of the Zimbabwean Army, centre, with Mugabe
The head of Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Happyton Bonyongwe, left, with Constantine Chiwenga, the commander of the Zimbabwean Army, centre, with Mugabe

“You may need to know that we have some members of our military who travelled with us to Boston. We kindly request that we honour them by letting them get out first. Once again thank you for flying with Delta airlines.”

I was seated on one of the back rows of the plane. On the other side of the isle to my left was a young marine in his early twenties. He reached for his bag from the overhead lockers. His facial expression said it all. He bit his lower lip to control his emotions as he walked towards the exit.

In front of him were two other marines. As the trio walked along the isle, passengers respectfully and silently clapped their hands. It was a sign of appreciation. I joined in the emotional respect shown to soldiers returning from a tour of duty.

In that moment, my mind travelled thousands of miles back to my motherland Zimbabwe. In particular, I began to retrace my life and a career that could have been.

Slightly over 20 years ago, I contemplated joining the security services. Immediately after high school, I made a number of applications to the Air Force and the Zimbabwe Republic Police. In the while, I also pursued other career interests. When the responses finally came, I had already begun a different career path.

On that particular cloudy afternoon in Boston, I asked myself a number of questions: If I had joined the military, would I be getting the same respect and honour from my people? Would I be proud to be a Zimbabwean soldier, let alone a police officer? Would I be viewing politics from the same angle as I am doing now? Where could I have been deployed and to fight who?

The marines on our flight were returning from a tour of duty where they were sent to defend the interests of their country. I am not trying to glorify or legitimise their missions by any means. However, there is no denying that they worked and did their job for all American people. They owe their allegiance to all the people of their country regardless of political persuasions. They salute the President of the day. Can the same be said of our security services today?

In the case of our country, it is on record that the security chiefs have vowed never to salute anyone without liberation war credentials. According to our security chiefs, the collective will of the citizens will not be respected. If the citizens chooses a leader not approved by the security chiefs, that leader must not be saluted. The Zimbabwean citizen must be subservient to the military and not vice versa.

On the policing front, the citizen must be locked up for expressing his views. On the other hand, those aligned to the security chiefs and Zanu PF can commit whatever crimes and go unpunished. The intelligence infrastructure no longer belongs to the people. It has become an institution working to protect the interests and security of a few individuals. It’s a blatant abuse of the country’s security apparatus.

But why are security chiefs behaving the way they are doing? The reasons are very clear. Most have a long and documented history of killing innocent civilians. The killings and abuses stretch from the days of the liberation struggle, the Gukurahundi massacres and the killing of opposition activists in present day Zimbabwe. They are not guaranteed pardons from any President who is not from Zanu PF, hence their efforts to subvert the will of the people.

The second reason is to do with their blatant looting of state and public resources. They have turned a country into a gang kingdom where they continue to pillage the country’s wealth with perpetual impunity. Any President who is not from Zanu PF will not only put a stop to their looting spree but will likely track the money and bring them to account.

These are the consequences they are not prepared to face. They cannot imagine a life without their current undue luxuries, worse still behind bars. They are making it worse by continuing to harass the people, creating continuous generations of activists who have a score to settle with them.

It is important to understand that military officers in a democratic society take an oath of office. In many democratic societies, military officers take the following standard oath: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of my country against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of my country and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

From the foregoing, military and security officers swear their allegiance to the constitution. The constitution represents the will of the people. They also swear that they will defend the constitution and obey orders from the President of the country. In the case of Zimbabwe, the security chiefs seem to have re-written the oath. They openly stated that they owe allegiance to a President so long that President is either Robert Mugabe or somebody who was involved in the liberation struggle. It is conditional allegiance which seeks to disrespect and undermine the democratic will of the people.

Such declarations are also a blatant disrespect of a younger generation which was not old enough to participate in the liberation struggle. That type of allegiance is treasonous as it disregards the constitution of our country. It is a big setback to efforts to create a democratic country. It has also presented a dilemma to other professional men and women in uniform who genuinely want to serve their country and fellow citizens.

In light of these security miss-alignments, it is important that necessary security reforms be undertaken in order to fully democratise Zimbabwe. To begin with, reforms are not targeted at individual members of the military or specific security chiefs as some may want to believe. Security reforms are institutional and meant to improve the work of the security sector and also align the sector with the democratic framework of a country. Reforms create mechanisms for sustainable security management and reporting. They seek to create a sector which is loyal, obedient and subservient to the people.

Security reforms become necessary when a dysfunctional security sector is unable to provide security to the state and its people effectively and under democratic principles. In some cases such as is the case with Zimbabwe, the security sector itself is a source of insecurity due to discriminatory and abusive practices.

Successful reforms will create security institutions which are not run along partisan lines. That can be achieved through giving Parliament the power to appoint security chiefs. A select committee must be given the mandate to vet the record of any potential appointee who is recommended by the President for appointment. The select committee will then present their findings and recommendations to the full House for a vote. The same should happen for any re-appointment of security chiefs whose terms have expired.

During the reform process, those most likely to be affected by the reforms such as security chiefs must also be invited to participate and give suggestions. However, their participation must not present a stumbling block to progressive reforms. In the end, any subsequent reforms must be supported and given legality by one or more Acts of Parliament.

Whilst current political players are concentrating on reforms through the Global Political Agreement framework, there is absolutely nothing which stops parliament from starting the process independent of the negotiating forum. That route is more realistic considering the resistance and bickering shown by the security sector as aided by Zanu PF and President Mugabe.

In light of obvious and glaring abuses of office by our security chiefs, Parliament must modify the Defence Act and make it treasonous for any sitting security chief to make any pronouncements which undermines the democratic will of the people.

Whilst reforms are not generally targeted at certain individuals, the declarations and pronouncements already made by sitting security chiefs make them unfit to occupy such important security positions. They can no longer be trusted with the security of our country.

Jacob Nkiwane can be contacted on [email protected]

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