Zimbabwe’s Army: New junta or reluctant reformers?


Operation Restore Legacy, which saw the end to Mugabe’s 37 year rule, has broken the log jam in Zimbabwe’s politics. But does it herald a democratic opening and economic recovery?

At the moment, all that is clear is that the military will play a key and expanded role. The military has been highly influential since independence, but its role since it ended Mugabe’s rule will be considerably enlarged.

Earlier this month Zimbabwe’s new President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, gave two of the 22 posts in his cabinet to military men. The man who read the announcement of the military takeover on television, Maj Gen Sibusiso Moyo, was made foreign minister and the Commander of the Air Force, Air Marshal Perrance Shiri, became Land Minister.

Himself a former liberation war military leader, Mnangagwa has had a long and close relationship with the army and is now clearly rewarding the military for paving his path to power. A number of news sites have reported that the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) Commander who led the military takeover, General Constantino Chiwenga, is likely to become Vice President at a ZANU-PF Extraordinary Congress later this month.

The opposition is extremely uneasy about these appointments. Tendai Biti, a prominent opposition leader and former finance minister in the coalition government, was quoted by The Guardian as describing the appointments as a “betrayal”. “We are now dealing with a junta,” he said.

David Coltart, a Senator representing the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change – Ncube, said, “a tyrant has been replaced, but not the tyranny.”

Coltart views the adoption of a Chinese political model, which would combine economic reforms with tight authoritarian control over any opposition, as the most likely scenario.

To extend the Chinese analogy, there might well be a lesson to be learned from the experience of China. Deng Xiaoping, the leader who implemented the economic reforms that sparked China’s explosive post-1978 growth, was very close to the People’s Liberation Army. This could indicate that firm military support can be key to undertaking economic reforms in authoritarian states.

But the path ahead is not free of complications. Having managed Mugabe’s exit, the army will face certain constraints in the coming phase. Like Deng, Mnangagwa and his soldier friends will have to respond to popular demands for expanded political as well as economic freedoms. Zimbabwe also remains under US and EU sanctions, which although target key individuals, must have the effect of discouraging investment, although poor domestic economic policies play the key role. And Chinese support is not enough in itself to carry the day.

The Zimbabwe armed forces are widely regarded as well-disciplined and professional. They are also expensive. As a percent of GDP, Zimbabwe’s spending on defence is large when compared to that of the region and the world. Zimbabwe spent 2.52 percent of its GDP on defence in 2016, down from 2.75 percent of GDP in 2014. By comparison, in 2016, Sub-Saharan Africa’s regional defence spending as a percent of GDP was 1.25 percent and that of the world 2.2 percent in 2016, according to The Military Balance 2017 published by The International Institute for Strategic Studies. Clearly, if economic growth rises and military spending does not overly rise, this would be a lesser burden.

The 2017 Military Balance estimates the strength of the army at 25 000 and that of the Air Force at 4 000. This is not large given the country’ population size or area. Given Zimbabwe’s fragile financial state, the ZDF is probably battling to maintain both its equipment and its reputation for excellence. The Military Balance 2017 shows the country has a sizable but aging armour, mechanised infantry, and artillery capabilities. China is the main equipment supplier. The army is easily equipped to play a continued role in domestic security, allowing it to always play a background role.

Initial soundings from Mnangagwa were positive for the country’s economic future and a political opening. Yet the record of the army and Mnangagwa in the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland soon after independence and in upholding Mugabe’s rule make for a poor legacy upon which to predict an opening.

Some Generals are known to have been given farms and to hold stakes in the Marange diamond fields. The lifting of the requirement in the indigenisation law that all foreign businesses be 51 percent African owned could well affect the interests of the ruling elite. If there are free and fair elections and the opposition wins and is allowed to form a government, or is in a coalition, the interests of the Generals may well be threatened. How these matters are dealt with could be a complicated, but necessary part of laying the basis for reform.

In addition the military have made it clear that Operation Restore Legacy was about “protecting our revolution,” not ending it. They have also stated that a requirement to be President is having played a role in the liberation struggle. But old comrades are aging and the laws of nature suggest that this will not be possible for long into the future.

There is a lot to suggest that Mnangagwa and his Generals cannot be true reformers. But popular demand for change is so powerful that it may well force their hand, especially in the economic sphere.

In blocking Grace Mugabe’s succession plans, the military may have unintentionally opened a democratic space it might now struggle to close down again. The outpouring of support for the military onto the streets and the days of public jubilation indicated a mass yearning for change. This might have only been visible in the opposition dominated larger urban areas, but it is likely to have been nationwide. Containing public demonstrations in the future could be difficult now that many have experienced the downfall of Mugabe.

If Mnangagwa can achieve even the beginnings of an economic turnaround he could strengthen the ZANU-PF position for a post-Mugabe era. The coup should help bolster the party, particularly if the opposition is divided. The Generals and Mnangawa may not have to resort to old ZANU-PF intimidation tactics to win, which means the country could work toward the lifting of US and European Union sanctions.

However, without free and fair elections next year and even a full accounting of the assets of the ruling elite, Zimbabwe might find it difficult to restore international confidence and re-build the economy. The European Union and the US are at the minimum likely to insist on free and fair elections, and even Zimbabwe’s Chinese allies have not displayed a willingness to give the country a blank cheque to continue the corruption and mismanagement widely associated with ZANU-PF rule.

The Generals must be fully aware of these realities and must know that their position can only diminish if the economy does not recover.

A key question has to be what does the army really want? That may be difficult to answer as the army is probably divided along the lines of senior officers and the other ranks. There has been much reported on how the most senior officers have benefited from Mugabe’s patronage, have high salaries, been given farms, and even stakes in the Marange diamond fields, and holdings in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The ranks below those of senior officers have taken strain from the collapsing Zimbabwean economy and poor government finances. Last year AFP reported delays in paying soldiers for a second successive month. Economic mismanagement has wiped out savings, brought on hyperinflation and shortages, and collapsed the economy to a fraction of what it was before the onset of disaster. Only the very well connected were able to avoid this sort of maelstrom. Rhetoric that blames sanctions and the actions of former colonizers for Zimbabwe’s misery increasingly falls on deaf ears.

Senior officers could have most to lose from a proper accounting of their assets and the scrapping of Mugabe’s indigenisation programme, while the more junior ranks might have most to gain from a turnaround in the economy. Yet to retain the support of junior ranks, it is likely the Generals know that economic reform is an imperative. An improved economy and government finances would allow more to be spent on defence and greater pride to be given to the army.

The path ahead for Zimbabwe is likely to be full of uncertainty, but significant changes, for some time. It is unclear the extent to which Mnangagwa has a reform agenda. The election which should be held by September 2018 will give a firmer signal of where Mnangagwa wants the economy and political reform to head. Attempts to delay or rig the election are likely to undermine what little confidence ZANU-PF still enjoys.

At 75, Mnangagwa is very old for a new leader, a factor that makes reimposition of Mugabe-style one man rule unlikely. Like China after Mao, Zimbabwe will have learnt a lesson of the dangers of leaders staying in power far too long. Mnangagwa will therefore not have the same authority and longevity of Mugabe.

One possible model to which the Zimbabwean Generals may have given some thought is that of Myanmar. Under the Myanmar Constitution the military shares power with elected representatives. This allowed the military to undertake a transition to democracy in Myanmar.

Zimbabwe has a sound democratic constitution, but a type of Myanmar option might be the final outcome in reality. It is almost certain that should the opposition do well in the elections, the military will insist on taking a role to protect the Generals’ interests.