Since the fall of long-term ruler, Robert Mugabe in a coup in November 2017, Zimbabwe’s military has become a daily part of the country’s political life, in your face and very much in charge.
— The Source News Agency
Before Mugabe’s fall, the last time army generals appeared on national TV to make political announcements was in January 2002, when they vowed to defend Mugabe’s rule.
In November 2017, they again appeared on the national broadcaster, ZBC TV, to announce the end of his reign.
Now military men hold senior positions in the administration of Mugabe’s successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Former Zimbabwe National Army Commander, Retired General Constantino Chiwenga is the republic’s Vice-President; the voice of the November 2017 coup, Retired Lieutenant-General Sibusiso Moyo, is Foreign Affairs and International Trade while the former Airforce commander, Retired Air Chief Marshall Perrance Shiri, is the Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Resettlement.
Mugabe had given the military free reign, including running his campaigns.
In 2013, out of ideas on how to re-energise his stuttering re-election campaign, it was to two security men that Mugabe turned to for help.
Henry Muchena, a retired Air Vice-Marshall and Sydney Nyanungo, former director (internal) of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), arrived at Zanu PF headquarters in 2013 to find a commissariat that was demoralised and out of sorts.
They set about restoring order, enforcing army-style discipline and turning around the department.
According to scholar Blessing-Miles Tendi, who had exclusive access to the campaign at that time, the security officials took over the party’s commissariat, which was the nerve centre of Mugabe’s re-election bid.
“It took charge of party structures and planning, and prepared reports and made recommendations about election preparations to Zanu PF’s elite body, the politburo,” Tendi writes in a 2013 journal published on the campaign.
This was the military being more civil in preserving Mugabe’s rule.
Just five years earlier, human rights groups said the army had been part of a violent run-off campaign, in which the opposition claimed hundreds of its supporters were killed.
Now, after being forced to quit with an army tank aimed at his Blue Roof mansion in the exclusive Borrowdale suburb, Mugabe had time to reflect on the folly of allowing the army free reign over so many civilian matters.
Zimbabwe’s army is not an ordinary army.
It is still led by many who served in the war of liberation, including Philip Valerio Sibanda. Many of them remain steeped in the teachings of the struggle years.
In 2011, Mugabe said the military could never be separated from Zanu PF.
“They are a force that has a history, a political history.”
But in his bid to please them, Mugabe created a monster that bit the hand that was feeding it.
To keep the army on his side, he kept it well-oiled with everything, from choice farms to top-paying jobs in State enterprises.
In return, he relied on them to quell dissent when his power was threatened.
Mugabe allowed the military to gain a foothold in civilian matters.
In 2005, he launched Operation Maguta, a Stalin-style operation in which soldiers ran farms.
Later, arms of the military were given lucrative concessions in the diamond fields of Marange in Manicaland province.
The skills flight of the early 2000s provided a pretext for army deployment to shore up low staffing levels in government departments, but it soon became a way to reward former and even serving army men with senior jobs at State enterprises.
At least a dozen parastatals have been or are currently led by army men.
At least 13 are either headed by or have board representation of former or serving officers.
At the 2014 burial of Mike Karakadzai, an ex-army officer accused by many of having run the National Railways of Zimbabwe to the ground, Mugabe thumbed his nose at critics of such appointments.
“One gets surprised when our detractors question the wisdom of deploying ex-military officers in State institutions and they describe such deployments as the militarisation of institutions concerned,” Mugabe said.
“Nothing could be further from the truth.
“These men and women are role models of valour, patriotism, honesty, industriousness and discipline, all qualities that are beyond reproach.”
Jason Machaya, former Midlands Provincial Affairs minister and one of Mugabe’s allies, also defended the appointments, saying army officials were the best managers.
“Some people always say government is militarising institutions, but let me remind them that the world over, military personnel have proved to be the best managers for parastatals because they are highly disciplined, loyal, dedicated and most of all, principled,” Machaya was quoted speaking at an army barracks before his fall.
At the Grain Marketing Board, a retired army colonel, Samuel Muvuti, ran the board for many years until he was charged with over 500 cases of fraud.
By keeping army officers well taken care of, Mugabe made sure the ties founded in the struggle remained strong.
It worked, and they have defended him for years.
Douglas Nyikayaramba, a top military officer, once declared he was prepared to die for Mugabe.
In 2017, at the burial of intelligence officer, Zenzo Ntuliki, Mugabe publicly thanked the security forces for keeping him in power.
“These uniforms are not just for putting on,” he declared.
After 37 years of unbridled authority, Mugabe was kicked out by the same military that had kept him in power for so long.
Drunk on his own self-delusion, he forgot how much power over the State he had given the military over the years.
For the military, the threat of losing all that influence over the State broke the decades-old alliance.
It was a threat represented by the former First Lady Grace Mugabe and her allies, who, in their arrogant chase for power, showed little respect for the war veterans and their critical role.
In 2008, during that bloody run-off campaign, Mugabe vowed a voter’s pen could never have power over the gun.
“A country we won by the gun? Taken away by the stroke of a pen? Never.
The pen can never be mightier than the gun.”
Today, Mnangagwa has surrounded himself with the guns that ensured his rise to the top office in the land, but lessons from the fall of Mugabe, a political chess master, will serve him well if he pays heed.