PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe’s government appears to be losing its 28-year hold on power, largely exercised through its iron grip on the military, with protests by soldiers this week.
As the economic meltdown intensifies, starvation stalks the land, and a cholera epidemic spreads, military sources said Mugabe and his clique of loyal advisors are anxious to contain growing discontent within the army, the police, and the secret service.
In the absence of a formal government, Mugabe is ruling with the help of the Joint Operations Command (JOC) and the Zanu PF politburo. The JOC brings together army, police and intelligence chiefs. The body itself has a divided view on what the solution to the current agitation in the army and public could be.
Sources said JOC is fractured because some key members such as Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) director-general Happyton Bonyongwe and Zimbabwe National Army commander Lieutenant-General Philip Sibanda are seen as too soft compared to others like Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) commander General Constantine Chiwenga who support Zanu PF.
While hardliners want a crackdown on dissent, reformers think political talks could be the best way out. Sources said Mugabe’s diehards and some JOC members want the troops who rioted on Monday severely punished, while others want them to be warned and cautioned.
The politburo was yesterday expected to deliberate on the riotous behaviour of the soldiers.
Government is investigating the soldiers who staged protests twice inside a week against poor wages and working conditions. It was the first time since Independence in 1980 that troops have taken to the streets.
A group of uniformed soldiers rampaged through Harare to protest poor pay and working conditions, causing alarm among the public. A similar riot happened last Thursday although it was confined to a small section of the city.
The soldiers also chanted anti-Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono slogans and blamed him for bankrolling the foreign currency black market and denying the majority of Zimbabweans access to cash through the formal banking system.
The agitated soldiers’ primary targets were foreign currency dealers, but members of the public were caught in the crossfire while shops were looted.
Mugabe’s government was already facing strikes and protests by discontented public servants, including doctors and nurses.
The discontent poses a serious threat to Mugabe’s regime, and if fuelled by the military disturbances, it could erupt into a nationwide anti-government campaign.
The incident on Monday, which resulted in injuries to onlookers, looting and damage to property, apparently shook those in the corridors of power and signalled a new phase in Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis.
The country is reeling from shortages of food and basic commodities. It is
also gripped by a cholera outbreak which has so far claimed close to 600 lives, according to government statistics.
Â Military sources said soon after the riot by troops on Monday, JOC held an emergency meeting to deal with the issue.
Sources said JOC recommended that the army be placed on high alert, an investigation be launched, and serious measures taken to contain the situation before it deteriorated into an uprising.
This led to the rapid deployment of military police. Trucks of riot police continued to patrol the streets of Harare yesterday, suggesting lingering official panic after Monday’s events.
The army also immediately launched an investigation into the incident, with Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi warning on Tuesday that “those found culpable will be brought to justice”.
Sekeramayi, who was communicating the JOC decision, also threatened to deal with “those who may try to incite some members of the uniformed forces to indulge in illegal activities”.
Sources said the army commanders had been caught off guard by the incident and wanted to get to the bottom of it as it was uncommon for troops to protest. Sources said the military commanders feared that if left unchecked, the discontent might intensify and result in a more general uprising. Based on the slogans chanted during the riot, army commanders feared the protesting soldiers could have been pursuing a “mutinous agenda”.
The soldiers chanted “hondo”, Shona for “war”, as they ran through the city streets. This initially puzzled bystanders but some joined the soldiers.
Police intervened to stop the destruction of property but showed marked reluctance to deal with the rioters.
There were some clashes between soldiers and the police, but the police did not arrest any of the soldiers.
Sekeramayi tried to play down the incident, saying it was the act of “unruly elements”. He tried to link the soldiers’ actions to Wednesday’s nationwide strike, organised by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), saying that this “coincidence raises many questions”.
The labour movement, a key ally of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, faced a serious backlash by police.
At least 69 ZCTU members, including its secretary-general Wellington Chibebe, were detained.
Executive director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, Jestina Mukoko, was abducted by suspected state agents for allegedly being involved in plans for anti-government demonstrations. A group of civil society leaders who were alarmed by Mukoko’s abduction on Wednesday called for her immediate release.
While the government was showing signs of panic, there has been speculation that the troops’ revolt could have been engineered by elements within the state in a bid to create conditions for a state of emergency.
There was speculation the government wanted to use the army “rebels” protest as a pretext to clamp down further, possibly even declaring a state of emergency to allow Mugabe to rule by decree and without the MDC.
By Dumisani Muleya and Constantine Chimakure