HomeOpinion & AnalysisFrom the Editor's Desk: When is military intervention in a sovereign state...

From the Editor's Desk: When is military intervention in a sovereign state justified?

Zimbabwe has intervened in two major conflicts in the southern African region in the past 30 years. When the Frelimo government of Samora Machel was tottering on the brink of collapse under the onslaught of the rebel Renamo guerrilla war, Zimbabwe intervened and saved the day.


There were two main reasons why intervention was inevitable. First, Zimbabwe as a landlocked country needed a safe passage to the Indian Ocean. At first the pretext was to go into Mozambique to safeguard the Beira Corridor. This was Zimbabwe’s lifeline to the sea through which it could import vital commodities, especially fuel. Zimbabwe, whose economy was the most robust in the region outside South Africa was also a big exporter of various products, both industrial and agriculture based.

The second reason was that Renamo was seen as an apartheid backed outfit that sought to reverse the tide of decolonisation that had swept the whole region except for South Africa and Namibia. Zimbabwe feared that if Renamo won in Mozambique the next target for the apartheid regime might as well be Zimbabwe itself.

So, in Mozambique Zimbabwe’s intervention was both economic and nationalistic.

In August 1998 Zimbabwe plu-nged into what was variously dubbed “The Second Congo War”, “Africa’s World War” or “The Great War of Africa”. Zimbabwe committed its troops after an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) resolution “preventing the deposing of governments by military means”.


Ironically the government of Laurent Desire Kabila had come into power through military means. Its ragtag guerrilla outfit, the banyamulenge prevailed over strongman Mobutu Sese Seko’s corrupt and disorganised army.
Historians say the DRC war was the largest war in modern African history. It directly involved eight African nations, as well as about 25 armed groups. By 2008 the war and its aftermath had killed 5,4 million people, mostly from disease and starvation, making the war the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II. Millions more were displaced from their homes or sought asylum in neighbouring countries.

Instead of saving civilians, the number of casualties shows the opposite happened.

After the war that lasted until July 2003 Zimbabwe was left the worse for wear. The country did not have any substantial economic interests in the DRC although it hoped to do lots of business once the natural-resources-rich country was rid of the insurgents.


But that did not come to pass as Zimbabwe’s efforts to penetrate that country’s business were hampered by bureaucratic red tape. However, a few individuals are reported to have benefitted immensely through the underhand mining of diamonds and cobalt.

But was Zimbabwe’s intervention justified? Commentators argued that it was indefensible on the grounds that Zimbabwean troops were committed in the DRC conflict by President Robert Mugabe without the authority of Parliament nor the authority of or endorsement by Cabinet. In terms of Section 96 of the Zimbabwean Constitution, “the President may declare war on a foreign state carrying out acts prejudicial to the security of Zimbabwe”. The situation in the DRC did not fall into this category.

The DRC war and the Black Friday of 1997 are the two most important blunders that destroyed Zimbabwe’s once thriving economy and the effects are still being felt today. On that Friday Mugabe had awarded 50 000 veterans of the 1970s liberation war huge amounts of unbudgeted for money as pensions.

In another form of intervention, Zimbabwe keeps contingents of its police in different parts of the world as UN peacekeeping forces. This is intervention aimed at protecting civilians.

The official position in Zimbabwe regarding UN intervention in Libya is that it is not justified and is a fulfillment of a “regime change agenda”. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is arguably Mugabe’s greatest ally on the continent. He has come in handy on several occasions when Zimbabwe has run out of fuel.


He has also helped Zanu PF financially when it was cash-strapped. But what has necessitated the intervention is that Gaddafi has disproportionately cracked down on peaceful civilians using dogs of war. Like in Egypt and Tunisia, members of his police force and the military had joined civilians in calling for democracy. These are the people who have only put up a fight when the mercenaries began to corner them.

So the UN resolution that authorised military force did so only to protect civilians from attacks by Gaddafi’s troops.

According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the decision is historic in the sense that for the first time, the UN Security Council has authorised measures specifically to protect civilians under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, making the measures militarily enforceable.

Ban Ki-moon said the council’s resolution, “affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community’s determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government.”

Regrettably the UN Security Council did not come up with a similar resolution on Zimbabwe in the early-to-middle 1980s when the government was butchering thousands of people in Matabeleland and the Midlands provinces during an operation notoriously known as the gukurahundi.


It is said 20 000 lives perished during the period. President Mugabe was still the darling of the West and was being pampered with a superfluity of honorary doctorates. By looking the other side these countries were complicity in this crime against humanity which has now been classified as genocide.

In 2008, both Sadc and the AU had to intervene in Zimbabwe  when it became clear that the political violence visited upon innocent civilians by the Zanu PF regime using state apparatus was about to spin out of control. That intervention gave us the GNU which had brought a semblance of peace in the country. The GNU is again under threat because of Zanu PF’s vindictiveness, calling for a more interested intervention by the pan-African bodies, if not the UN itself.

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