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Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye: Ode to Robert Mugabe’s tenuous militarization of Zimbabwe’s civilian vocations

By Luke Tamborinyoka

This week marked exactly a year after the death of Robert Mugabe and this instalment looks at his tenuous legacy, particularly how the founding leader militarised several civilian sectors of the body politic, a practice that his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa has maintained and in fact deepened.

Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye with Luke Batsirai Tamborinyoka
Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye with Luke Batsirai Tamborinyoka

Under Mnangagwa, our diplomacy was militarised through the appointment of retired military general Sibusiso Moyo as Minister of Foreign Affairs as well as the retirement and the reassignment in February last year of four military generals to serve as full ambassadors, marking the full militarization of the country’s diplomatic service. Mnangagwa has just yet again militarised our medication by reassigning his Deputy Constantine Chiwenga, a retired military general, to serve as the country’s Health Minister as well.

But as we remember Robert Mugabe’s blood-soaked legacy, with Mnangagwa as his sidekick, I trace the journey of the militarization of civilian vocations over the last 40 years.

It is important to stress that this week’s piece is an edited extract from a comprehensive and voluminous academic paper that I have written elsewhere as part of my strident academic pursuit.

Introduction

Zimbabwe attained its political independence from Britain on 18 April 1980 after a protracted armed liberation struggle. The founding leader of the independent republic was Robert Gabriel Mugabe, then the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe who only became President following a Constitutional amendment in 1987.

This extract will trace the history of civil-military relations in independent Zimbabwe from the time of independence in 1980 until the founding leader was ousted in a military-assisted transition in November 2017.Tendi (2019: 48) contends instead that what ousted the country’s founding leader from office in 2017 was not a military-assisted transition but a coup as what happened snugly fits all the definitions, traits and commonalities of a coup.

This extract will also make a brief reference to the militarization of diplomacy through the secondment of military generals as full ambassadors, a practice that began under Mugabe. As this extract will show, Mugabe led the country through an eventful epoch in which the span of military control spread across a variety of civilian sectors.

Civil-Military Relations in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s civil-military relations were tenuous from the time of the attainment of independence in 1980. The country attained its political independence following an armed liberation struggle and the two political liberation movements ZANU and ZAPU had their own military wings known as ZANLA and ZIPRA respectively.

This means that from the very outset, there has always been fusion or concordance in civil-military relations as the civilian political parties had military wings during the armed war of independence. Rupiya (2002) refers to this as the Liberation Movement Model of civil-military relations where the army in countries that wages liberation struggles has always been embedded in civilian political affairs.

This model of fused civil-military relations is particularly common in sub-Saharan Africa in countries such as Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique that waged protracted liberation struggles to achieve their political independence. In all these countries, by dint of their history, the military has always controversially played civilian roles and the important line between the military and the civilian realms has often been blurred.

Chitiyo (2009) notes that while both ZANLA and ZIPRA as party military wings were highly politicized, they became even more politicized as part of a supposedly professional army after 1980. Soon after independence around 1982, the army was deployed against civilians in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces where an estimated 20 000 people were brutally murdered.

The 5th Brigade, a unit of the Zimbabwe National Army, was used in the highly political Gukurahundi campaign, ostensibly to neutralize suspected “dissidents.”

Yet the army-instigated massacre of civilians may have been a ZANU plot to neutralize ZAPU, its co-liberation movement during the armed struggle for independence. Mugabe was later to publicly admit to the military’s responsibility in the callous murders of innocent civilians, famously describing it as having been a moment of madness.

In 2017, the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute unveiled a comprehensive study which showed how the military had become active players in four civilian institutions in violation of the Constitution. The four civilian sectors in which the army had become intimately involved are the electoral process, the judiciary, the legislature and the media.

The military in elections

Perhaps the stand-out statement that showcases the army’s involvement in elections was made on 9 January 2002 when the then commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Vitalis Zvinavashe announced on the eve of a Presidential election that the Presidency was “a straightjacket” and that the army would only salute a President who had liberation war credentials (Zimbabwe Press Freedom 2002).

This was seen as a coup of sorts and a subversion of the electoral process as it meant that out of all the candidates who had legally submitted their nomination papers, the military could only accept an election outcome in which President Mugabe emerged as the winner. The statement was therefore a subversion of the electoral process!

Chitiyo (2009) notes that in the same 2002 Presidential election, the national election management body, then called the Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC), was chaired by Sobusa Gula Ndebele, a retired soldier, while the chief executive officer was Brigadier-General Douglas Nyikayaramba, then a serving military officer.

The disputed and challenged 2002 Presidential election, whose verdict is still to be handed down 18 years later, , was also run as a military operation because the National Command Centre, run by the military, was first established at the then Sheraton Hotel before it was moved to Manyame Air Base.

In the run up to the 2008 elections, in whose run-off poll the military was heavily involved and in which military generals were assigned to provinces to overturn the results of the first-round poll, President Mugabe seemed to accept what he said were concerns from the military that ZANU PF, as the party that won the country’s independence through an armed struggle, could not just cede power by virtue of an electoral process which uses a pen which costs less than five cents:

” _They (soldiers and war veterans) came to me and said, “President, we can never accept that which we won through the barrel of the gun could be taken merely by an ‘X’ made by a ball point pen .” ‘ Zvino ball point pen icharwisana neAK ? ( Will the pen fight the AK rifle? ). Is there going to be a struggle between the two ? Do not argue with a gun .

Added to this is the fact that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the country’s election management body, has since publicly admitted that 15 percent of its secretariat are serving members of the security service, further confirming that the military is firmly embedded in the civilian process of the running of the country’s polls.

This could as well confirm the Liberation Movement Model of civil-military relations (Rupiya 2002), in which the military in a country that fought an armed liberation struggle will always remain an active player in civilian political affairs to serve the interest of the ruling elite to which it was a part of during the armed struggle. Such an army will need to be weaned off this patently unconstitutional habit of meddling in civilian processes.

The military in the media

During Former President Robert Mugabe’s era, military personnel were also seconded to the civilian sector of the media, where they were given top leadership positions at the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), the Zimbabwe Newspapers Group (Zimpapers) and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings.

Eight senior soldiers were handed leadership of the three media institutions. The top military commanders deployed to serve the media sector were Retired Colonel Reuben Mqayi and Brig-Gen Elasto Madzingira (both BAZ), Major-General Gibson Mashingaidze and Brigadier-General Benjamin Mabenge (both ZBH), Colonel Claudius Makova (New Ziana), Brig-General Collin Moyo (Kingstons) and Brig-General Livingstone Chineka (Transmedia).

Added to these soldiers running the conventional media, former ZNA Commander Phillip Valerio Sibanda also stated at the time that social media had become the new security threat. Thus, he said, the military would be heavily involved if anyone was found guilty of masterminding what he described as the new threat of cyber warfare (nehandaradio 2016).

The military in the Legislature

Parliament as the theatre of the people’s representatives appears not to have been spared the militarization crusade in this apparent fusion of civil-military relations under former President Mugabe. An analysis of the serving legislators as at June 2013 shows that there were no less than 14 retired members of the country’s military. (www.parlzim.gov.zw).

In its seminal report, the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (2017) further noted that most of the legislators of the 7th Parliament, even if they were not directly linked to the military themselves, were either relatives, family or friends with those in the armed service and resultantly, the military interests were jealously protected and preserved.

The military in the Judiciary

Though the judiciary, together with Parliament and the Executive are supposed to be separate arms of the State in line with the country’s Constitution, there was notable presence of military interests in the judiciary during the reign of former President Robert Mugabe.

The ZDI (2017) noted that the country’s war veterans, regarded as reserve members of the Zimbabwe National Army, had reconfigured the judiciary in 2000 by forcing the resignation of then Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay as well as Justices David Bartlett and Nicholas McNally during the fast-track land reform exercise.

They forced the resignations of the esteemed judges by storming into the courtroom and dancing on the tables of the country’s Supreme Court. Justice George Chiweshe, now the Judge President, is a retired Brigadier-General who was also the ZEC chairperson during the disputed election of 2008.

As part of the military intrusion into the judiciary, the then Prosecutor-General Ray Goba admitted during public interviews that most staff in the National Prosecution Authority (NPA), a key arm in the Justice delivery system, comprised mostly of staff seconded from the Air Force and the army. He conceded that most of them were unqualified for their job and this had compromised the country’s justice delivery system (The Zimbabwe Independent 2017).

Beyond the four areas of military intrusion discussed above, it is instructive to note that under former President Mugabe, serving and retired military personnel were seconded to State-run entities and other civilian institutions, possibly in line with what Rupiya (2002) postulates to have been an attempt to embed patronage and loyalty.

During the latter years of President Robert Mugabe’s tenure, the country’s spy agency, the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), was headed by retired Brigadier-General Happyton Bonyongwe while the Zimbabwe Prison Services was headed by Retired Major General Paradzai Zimondi, further cementing the grip of the military even within the security units of the State.

It is pertinent to note that under Mugabe, the military personnel were seconded to parastatals and other civilian institutions. While this was permissible under the Defence Act and under the old Constitution, the practice became patently unconstitutional after the country affirmed a new supreme law of the land in a referendum in May 2013.

Section 29 of the Defence Act gives the Minister of Defence the power to attach or second serving military personnel to civilian institutions but the same is now inconsistent with the Constitutional provisions in sections 206(1), 207(2) and 208 (1) which generally prohibit serving military officers from being partisan and from partaking in purely civilian activities in the absence of a national emergency.

There is now an apparent conflict between the Defence Act and the Constitution and in those circumstances, the Constitution takes precedence over any other law that is inconsistent with it. Section 2(1) of the Zimbabwe Constitution (2013) specifically states that the Constitution “ is the supreme law of the land and any law , practice , _custom or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid …”

However, despite the advent of the new Constitution which makes the secondment of serving military officers to civilian institutions illegal and unconstitutional, former President Mugabe still maintained the practice.

The secondment to civilian government service in 2015 of Brigadiers-General Evaristo Dzihwema, Gerald Gwinji and Michael Sango violated section 208 (4) of the Constitution which outlaws the attachment of serving military officers to civilian offices save only during situations of national emergency. While still serving in the army, the three were appointed to the positions of principal director in the then Ministry of Youth and Indigenization, Health Permanent Secretary and ambassador to Russia respectively, in blatant violation of the supreme law of the land.

Chitiyo (2009) also chronicles various controversial quasi-political activities undertaken by the military during former President Mugabe’s reign that confirm his tutelage, patronage and reliance on the military for the ruling party’s political survival.

These include Operation Tsuro to take over white-owned commercial farms in 2000, the 2005 Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out the Filth) to demolish shacks and homes in high-density urban areas, Operation Garikai / Hlalani Kuhle (Live Well) that was meant to build small urban homes as well as Operation Makavhotera Papi (Who did you vote for) that was meant to scare urban voters who overwhelmingly voted for the MDC in 2008.

The same military was also allowed to involve itself in what ought to have been civilian agricultural programmes such as Operation Taguta (Enough Food) and lately the Command Agriculture programme in which billions of money in scarce foreign currency was stolen by the military elite. All these civilian programmes were actively driven by the military, thereby showcasing a legacy of concordance or fusion of civil-military relations under Mugabe, notwithstanding the Constitutional provisions in the Zimbabwe Constitution (2013) that call for separation in civil-military relations.

In 2016, as relations between the former President and the army got strained with the army actively interfering in the internal affairs of the ruling Zanu PF, then ZDF commander Constantine Chiwenga made a chilling revelation that the military were not stakeholders but were “stockholders” in both the party and the country. After all, he said, the military were the war veterans who had fought for the country’s independence so they were in charge of both the party and the country.

If anything, Chiwenga’s statement referred to above was an ominous testimony of the tenuous nature of Zimbabwe’s civil-military relations under Mugabe and how the military had become active players in partisan politics, in brazen violation of the country’s Constitution.

One could surmise therefore that from 1980 to 2017, the military appeared to play conjoined civilian and military roles, setting the stage for contentious civil-military relations that led to calls by the broader international community for security sector reform, ostensibly to curtail and restrain what demonstrably appeared to be the over-arching hand of the military in the civilian sectors of the country’s political economy.

The Militarization of Diplomacy in Zimbabwe : A historical overview

In the years of his tenure between 1980-2017 and as part of the militarization of civilian sectors, it was Mugabe who commenced the now intensified practice of reassigning military generals to diplomacy to serve as full ambassadors. As part of a long-standing tradition since 1980, the former President in 2015 yet again seconded three military generals to serve as full diplomats.

These were Major-General Nicholas Mahuhuba Dube (Mozambique), Air Vice Marshall Titus Abu-Basuthu (Japan) as well as General Mike Nicholas Sango (Russia). Dube and Sango replaced other military generals in their countries of posting, namely Retired Brigadier General Agrippa Mutambara and Lieutenant Colonel Boniface Chidyausiku respectively.

Other former military commanders re-assigned to diplomatic missions as full ambassadors under the Mugabe regime include Rtd Major-General Edzai Chimonyo (Tanzania), Rtd Major-General Jevan Maseko (Cuba) and former CIO director-general Elisha Muzonzini (Kenya).

Chimonyo is a curious case as he has since been brought back into active military service by current leader Emmerson Mnangagwa to serve as the commander of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), raising doubts as to whether retired soldiers truly become civilians or the prospects always remain for them to be brought back into active military service.

This shuttling between retirement and active military service could be presumed to be a further complication of the country’s tenuous civil-military relations as this means one can never tell whether retired military officers truly become civilian or there are always prospects of them bouncing back to active service in the barrack

Conclusion

As discussed in this treatise, under former President Robert Mugabe, himself foisted at the helm of ZANU PF through the Mgagao declaration by the liberation party’s military wing in 1975, the army’s tentacles were allowed to spread across a vast labyrinth of the civilian sectors.

The line between the civilian and military realm became blurred. Under former President Mugabe, civilian and military relations were conjoined in a manner consistent with the concordance theory as enunciated by Rebecca Schiff (2009), notwithstanding the country’s Constitutional provisions that affirm the separation theory in civil-military relations by creating distinct civilian and military realms.

The remit and tentacles of the military under Mugabe stretched from the country’s election-management body, parastatals, the judiciary, Parliament, the media as well as seemingly innocuous and purely civilian enterprises such as the country’s successive agriculture programmes.

After all, in a tenuous rendition of the country’s unconstitutional civil-military relations and as the army itself publicly stated, Zimbabwe’s military were the “stockholders” of both the country and the ruling party. The secondments of serving military officers to civilian offices and departments were done in brazen violation of the Constitution of the country, which outlaws the practice.

Ironically, when relations between the founding leader and the military soured in the run-up to the coup that removed him from office in November 2017, it was Mugabe himself who admonished the army for straying into the civilian arena of politics, a practice he had himself overtly and covertly encouraged over the years.

Mugabe publicly said the involvement of soldiers into the internal ZANU PF politics was tantamount to a coup and invoked a liberation war dictum which stated that politics shall always lead the gun and not the gun politics. If Mugabe was eventually ousted by the same military that had installed him as party leader in 1975 and kept him in office for all his 37 years in office, then the country’s former strongman might as well have been hoist by his own petard (Tamborinyoka 2017).

As noted in this extract, it was former President Robert Mugabe who initiated the now burgeoning practice of reassigning military commanders to the arena of diplomacy to serve as full ambassadors, probably as part of the dexterous practice of political tutelage and patronage.

This is Mugabe’s legacy but under Mnangagwa nothing has changed. In fact, the military’s involvement in civilian affairs has been deepened as shown by the fact that even the country’s health services has now been militarised through the secondment of retired military generals to serve in the Ministry of Health as Minister and permanent secretary.

If anything, under Mnangagwa, we have jumped from the frying pan into the fire when it comes to the militarization of civilian vocations.

In fact, so militarised now is our health services sector that the next time you buy your medication, mind that there could be within the medical package some lacing of gunpowder and bullets!

Luke Tamborinyoka is the Deputy Secretary for Presidential Affairs in the MDC Alliance led by Advocate Nelson Chamisa . He is a multiple award-winning journalist who was once elected and served as the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists .

Tamborinyoka also served as the spokesperson for almost 10 years to the country’s democracy icon , Morgan Tsvangirai , until the latter’s death in 2018 . He is an ardent political scientist who won the Book Prize for Best Student when he graduated with a Bachelor of Science Honours degree at the University of Zimbabwe .

You can interact with him on Facebook or on the _twitter _handle @ luke_tambo

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