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Why army warning is ominous

Army press conferences are rare and ominous events in Zimbabwe. When the army calls a press conference in Zimbabwe, it is a serious matter and you better sit up and listen. When they did in November last year, former president Robert Mugabe was toppled the next day. So it was no surprise that when they called another press conference recently, the event was oversubscribed. I did not know there would be a conference and thus did not follow it as I was travelling.

Army press conferences are rare and ominous events in Zimbabwe. When the army calls a press conference in Zimbabwe, it is a serious matter and you better sit up and listen. When they did in November last year, former president Robert Mugabe was toppled the next day. So it was no surprise that when they called another press conference recently, the event was oversubscribed. I did not know there would be a conference and thus did not follow it as I was travelling.

By Siphosami Malunga

But as they say, nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of news. During a meeting, my phone got overwhelmed with messages from many people telling me that “the army is talking about you”, “you better watch out” and “please be careful” and “that was a warning”, “please don’t come home”, “you know these guys” and many more.

I excused myself from a breakfast meeting I was having and after reading the press statement and watching the video on Facebook dismissed most of these comments with a smile emoji. The point of the press conference, which was addressed by Colonel Overson Mugwisi, was to dispel reports accusing the military of meddling in the country’s electoral and political process. Mugwisi vowed that the military would remain neutral and accept whatever results come from the presidential and parliamentary polls that are scheduled to take place on July 30 this year. He also dismissed reports that the military had deployed more than 2 000 soldiers in communities to campaign for Zanu PF. A number of journalists were mentioned by name and accused of spreading falsehoods — which is essentially a criminal offence under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. This offence actually violates sections 59, 60 and 61 of the constitution which clearly protects freedom of thought and expression.

My name was also mentioned as an example of people spreading misinformation and reference was made to an opinion piece I had written for Foreign Policy Magazine raising among other key election issues, the deployment of 2 000 soldiers to campaign for Zanu PF. This was not the first time I had raised this issue. I had written about the role of the military in the election for other publications including the Zimbabwe Independent, the Daily Maverick in South Africa and African Arguments. I had also spoken about excesses by the army in several public dialogues in Zimbabwe which had been widely circulated on social media.

I will address the erroneous conclusion of the military spokesperson that the article that I wrote was peddling falsehoods, but first I would like to address the issue of fear that pervades our society when the army takes a direct interest in civilian affairs to the extent of identifying civilians such as myself and several others. Why did everyone who contacted me about the press conference feel the need to warn and ask me to be careful? Why did the military spokesperson single out my name and those of other individuals? Why did this singling out inspire concern from friends and colleagues? It points to something terrible that has become of our society. The only plausible reason from a recent survey by Afrobarometer released March 20 2018 is that over 73% of Zimbabweans do not feel free to criticise the army. In the same survey, 69% of Zimbabweans reject military rule while 64% trust the army, somewhat. It is clear that my views relating to the role of the army in the elections were perceived by those who raised concerns as criticism of the army, which many would be too afraid to do. The contradiction between the overwhelming public support for the army’s removal of Mugabe, the rejection of military rule and the fear to criticise the army is very clear and highlights an obvious public expectation that the army must stay out of politics. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka summed it up well in saying that the greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.

The military’s role in the country’s politics was in full display when it conducted a coup in November 2017 to remove Mugabe and install their preferred leader Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had lost a fierce political battle for the control of Zanu PF. The coup resulted in the entrenchment of the militarisation of the state, with key coup masterminds being retired from the military to be rewarded with senior government positions. These include Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, Foreign Affairs minister Sibusiso Moyo and Agriculture minister Perrance Shiri, among a host of other military personnel now working as senior officials in various government departments.

Even before that, in April 2016, while addressing war veterans at a rally that was broadcast on ZBC, Mugabe was unequivocal on the role of the military when he said: “Totenda ma war veterans, the military also, they played their role. Ndosaka takachengetedza varume ava vanga vasvika paku retire kuti tirwe hondo neopposition, tikabva tabuda shudhu.” [We are grateful to war veterans and the military for playing their role. We retained them beyond their retirement so they could assist us in fighting the opposition, we came out victorious.)

The issue of the 2 000 military personnel who have been deployed to communities to campaign for Zanu PF can quickly be dispensed with. I did not pluck this figure from the air, but rather, this number is from the summary of the minutes of a meeting that was called by General Constantino Chiwenga in the week of the coup in November 2017. These minutes are a matter of public record. On page 22 of those minutes, reference is made to: “Feedback from the over 2 000 commissars comprising retired senior officers from the army already embedded in communities across the country”.

The minutes further recorded, “the operation by the military was thus meant to reinstate bona fide party processes for legitimate outcomes”. Furthermore, at the Zanu PF special session of the central committee in Harare on November 19 2017, a few days after the coup, the following is written as part of the resolutions: “…the central committee on behalf of Zanu PF expressed profound gratitude to the Zimbabwe Defence Forces for their intervention efforts in the internal affairs of the party”. The damning report launched on July 10 by the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute confirms the deployment of the military and highlights its deterrence of the village vote. Nothing could be clearer on the role of the army in Zanu PF and their interest in propping up a particular candidate, hence concerns about the impartiality of the military.

It is also surprising and worrying that in the press conference, the army spokesperson mentioned my name and some journalists instead of calling to order Zanu PF officials who have publicly made statements on the unacceptability of a Zanu PF loss. In April this year, Zanu PF national political commissar retired Lieutenant General Engelbert Rugeje addressed a gathering in Masvingo and warned people not to forget the violence that was unleashed after his party lost the 2008 general elections. He unashamedly reminded the crowd that he had to be deployed to Masvingo after the election loss to correct the situation in preparation for a runoff election which in the end the MDC withdrew from after hundreds of opposition supporters were tortured and scores of people were killed.

Not to be outdone, the minister of State for Masvingo, Josaya Hungwe, warned the people of Masvingo at a rally against voting for the wrong person. He ominously remarked:

“Do you know that I am the leader of the new dispensation here in Masvingo and I say ichi chinhu chedu chatakaita (this is our thing that we did). Our leader is a soldier and you know that a soldier is always equipped with a gun to do whatever he wants”.

Another Zanu PF official who is also the deputy Finance minister remarked that the military would not allow the MDC leader to lead Zimbabwe: “How can we say, honestly expect the soldiers who took the country, practically snatched it from Mugabe to come and hand it over to Chamisa?”

In June of this year Vice-President Chiwenga told a Zanu PF rally in Harare’s Tafara suburb that the military’s “operation restore legacy”, which began in November 14 2017, was still on and will only end when people vote for Emmerson Mnangagwa in the coming elections. Operation restore legacy, was the code name for the coup which dislodged Mugabe from power and the deployed the army in communities. By his remarks, it means soldiers will remain deployed in the communities and will only be withdrawn if Mnangagwa wins.

It is therefore, unsettling that the army would choose to call to order those who write expressing worry at the involvement of the military in politics rather than censure the officials in Zanu PF and those who are in charge of the army, who are threatening violence if the electoral result does not deliver their candidate. The question must be asked why the army does not mention the progenitors of these allegations, Chiwenga, Hungwe, Mukupe, Rugeje and many others? Why single me and a couple of journalists if not to intimidate us?

Although most of the incidents above are fairly recent, it is matter of public record that the military has always been central to Zanu PF’s politics, in particular the political survival struggles of the party. This dates back to the liberation struggle where the military has always been used to viciously prop up factions within the party in the fiercely contested succession battles but also to crash dissent and opposition to Zanu PF. In independent Zimbabwe, the military involvement in the country’s politics and survival strategies of ruling party began when a North Korean-trained force was deployed in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces to attack supporters of the opposition party Zapu which was led by Joshua Nkomo. Between 1983 and 1987, soldiers wreaked havoc in the two provinces, killing an estimated 20 000 civilians, mostly Zapu supporters.

On January 9 2002, Zimbabweans were treated to a bizarre press conference ahead of the presidential election held against the backdrop of swelling support for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Zimbabwe Defence Force chiefs led by the then head of the defence forces General Vitalis Zvinavashe pledged their unwavering support for then president Robert Mugabe vowing not to accept victory and leadership of Zimbabwe by anyone without liberation war credentials, in overt reference to Morgan Tsvangirai who was the MDC presidential candidate.

In 2005 the military spearheaded Operation Murambatsvina (operation get rid of filth), which displaced an estimated 700 000 families translating to 2,4 million people, in what the UN condemned as an “unjustified,” “disastrous,” and “indiscriminate” exercise that was in violation of international law. While the exercise was clothed as aimed at illegal dwellings and structures that were fuelling illicit activities, it later emerged that the real motive was to weaken the opposition by targeting its supporters in cities and forcibly relocating them to rural areas that are under the control and clutches of Zanu PF’s coercive machinery.

Nothing clearly underscored the role of the military in the subversion of people’s will as the 2008 elections. Following the humiliating defeat of Mugabe by Tsvangirai, the electoral commission which was staffed by military personnel and headed by former senior military staffer Justice George Chiweshe refused to release the results for more than six weeks. And when they did, they published an outcome that showed there was no clear winner necessitating a presidential run off. The military then embarked on a violent campaign to ensure a Mugabe victory. More than 200 opposition supporters were murdered in the bloody campaign that saw Sadc step in to broker the signing of a Global Political Agreement (GPA) between Zanu PF and MDC formations, leading to the formation of the government of national unity. The agreement had security sector reforms as part of the agenda of the coalition government, which in itself was acknowledgement of unacceptable military involvement in the country’s politics by parties to the pact.

It is good that the military is stepping forward and claiming neutrality, but they should never think that we are so amnesic as to forget their history and footprints in Zanu PF politics. Only an honest commitment to withdraw the soldiers accompanied by concrete action to demilitarise communities and the elections commission will restore confidence in their impartiality and professionalism as guarantors of national security. Most importantly, the military must stop policing the constitutionally guaranteed exercise of free speech by citizens. It has far a more important responsibility to defend the country from external threats.

l Siphosami Malunga is the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa