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Beware of military economy

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WE have seen the grey area occasioned by the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) collecting and retaining a substantial portion of traffic spot fines at roadblocks, and effectively directly competing with the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) for the function.

CONWAY TUTANI

“Sometimes we hear figures of $3 million, $7 million, being collected per month from these roadblocks. That is the amount which finally gets to be accounted for, not talking about what goes into the policemen’s pockets . . . And then at the end of the month we have an issue with Treasury; they want money for salaries for the same people who are collecting (it at roadblocks) . . . ” bemoaned Zimra boss Gershem Pasi in June.

Allowing the ZRP the leeway to collect such amounts of money has created an institutional grey area, with ZRP national spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba telling Pasi — in strong, dismissive language — to back off. The potential to diminish oversight and accountability looms large.
In a constitutional democracy, there is separation of powers at every level. This is the basis upon which institutionalism or an institutional framework is built; that is, an approach that emphasises the roles of separate institutions so as to have clarity, fairness and accountability.

This week, we had President Robert Mugabe defending security forces’ involvement in joint commercial ventures with local and foreign partners. The business interests of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) are not only massive, but extensive, like they have grown into conglomerates. But have benefits accrued to the nation at large?

Civil society groups and the opposition have constantly raised concern over the ZDF’s involvement in diamond mining, saying they were being used as conduits for looting and smuggling.

In Pakistan, the military is a major player in the economy. Major land scandals involving top generals and their families have surfaced, but have been swept under the carpet.

The country’s main anti-corruption agency has been prevented from probing a military logistics and supply company because of intervention by senior army officers.

One justification here is that soldiers make more efficient managers than civilians. But many, if not most, military-run parastatals operate at a loss.

To keep them afloat, the government has had to make bail-outs amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. In Egypt, the military can conscript cheap labour. Its profits are exempt from taxes and business licencing requirements.

This gives the military significant advantages, making it hard for private sector companies to compete.

This disconnect between the military and the workings of the modern economy makes military people fail to perceive how their actions undermine growth and development.

That is not to say the military as an institution is a complete parasite on the economy. It has been proven globally that the military and defence industry is a significant driver of economic development in communities to the benefit of every citizen.

But there are serious implications and grave danger in allowing military business outside the Ministry of Defence budget, as is becoming increasingly the trend in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe must avoid going the Pakistan and Egypt way, where the military operates outside the defence budget.

Both have powerful and predatory armies and are heavily militarised. Senior officers have cited army welfare as justification for their business empires in the same way they cite national security to justify their coups.

The ultimate result is that fairness and accountability are endangered — which is a threat to constitutional democracy, of which Egypt is but the latest casualty.

“In societies like Pakistan and Egypt, the military is the State’s primary tool for exercising power, so elites partner with it, or control it, to eke out the benefits of power,” writes Pakistani civil-military scientist and political commentator Ayesha Siddiqa.

This effectively shields the military from any prosecution under the civilian system. Such an unholy alliance of the political and economic predominance of the military cannot be good for any country — Zimbabwe included.

It is clear that until and unless the ZDF’s extensive and growing business operations are curtailed, it will continue to exercise de facto or de jure control of the country. The more the economic interests of the military spread, the more political power it will use to buttress and safeguard those riches.

The military should be active in the community as private, deserving citizens — not as an overbearing, privileged institution.

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