The implications of the Zimbabwean military coup

An armoured personnel carrier stations by an intersection as Zimbabwean soldiers regulate traffic in Harare on November 15, 2017. Zimbabwe's military appeared to be in control of the country on November 15 as generals denied staging a coup but used state television to vow to target "criminals" close to President Mugabe. / AFP PHOTO / Jekesai NJIKIZANA (Photo credit should read JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images)

THE importance of national security – measures taken by a state against external and/or internal threats to its economy and stability – cannot be overemphasised. It is precisely this national security that was threatened by growing factional fights within the ruling ZANU-PF.

By Kingstone Jambawo

Since the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) has been immersed in Zimbabwe’s politics since independence, no moment could have presented itself for a military intervention than the sacking of Mnangagwa. In ZDF’s view, the concern for national security became a paramount one, particularly due to succession battles within ZANU-PF. The need to purge all sources of threats to our national security in order to ensure a successful stable emerging democracy became quite apparent when Grace Mugabe’s intentions became clear.

The overwhelming military approach to national security should largely be based on the conditions under which the national security clause can be invoked – the assumption that the principle threat to security comes from other nations. Of course, this is contestable for there is no doubt that the greatest threat to national security could be internal. It is such internal threats that induce or make a state vulnerable to external attacks.

As such, the security of the nation does not therefore have to do with military defence alone. There is need, however, to locate the concept of national security where it rightly belongs by attaching to it a broader meaning that emphasises not only military development but also political, economic, and social development of civil society. Development then becomes a central concept in our understanding of the concept of security. In effect, therefore, one can say that national security refers to these measures that are taken for the protection of a given nation against internal and external threats.

These threats could thus be military, political, economic, social, and cultural or otherwise which date back to 2008, so the coup could have happened then. Indeed no nation, regardless of its military development level, can be regarded as secure if its economy is battered yet ours has been for at least two decades. If unemployment exacerbates corruption, if poverty, disease, and malnutrition intensify to the extent where its citizens are compelled to engage in dangerous activities, such as prostitution, bribery and robbery to be able to make a decent living, then the country’s security is at risk. According to this view, it becomes clear that for the ZDF, these were not enough to warrant a military intervention, but the sacking of a revolutionary leader was hence ZDF is ZANU-PF.

The ZDF imposed President Emmerson Mnangagwa who was immediately confronted by the same sort of political, cultural, social and economic problems which has beset the Mugabe government that he was part of for the whole 37 years. It is unlikely that E D Mnangagwa’s administration that comprises of the same old cabinet are going to be able to cope with these issues, therefore, as it has always been the case, they will fail miserably in their self-imposed tasks.

The reason why the armed forces seized power is not to be found in the success or failures of the Robert Mugabe administration, so to find the reason, we will have to examine the various factors and events preceding the ZDF intervention which have already been reported extensively by various media. To reiterate, this military regime has come into power in a situation of acute succession crisis within ZANU-PF.

The ZDF has not removed the system but only one of the hated and feared oppressors in ZANU-PF and replacing him with another, which many commentators have said might be worse than his predecessor. After which no recognition was granted to the opposition whatsoever, yet bizarrely this change of power was greeted with hope and satisfaction by many. This situation has generated the belief that the real problem to the continued violence, disappearances and human right abuses was Robert Mugabe alone and that the military imposed Mnangagwa is all of a sudden the guarantor of human rights and good governance.

We have forgotten that politics from the viewpoint of the typical ZANU-PF politician is seen as a profession where one could enrich himself at the expense and disadvantage of the poor people. Given the repressive political climate that has always existed under former President Robert Mugabe and that the military felt ‘compelled’ to interfere in the body politics of the state under the pretext of rescuing the Zimbabwean people – it is sad to note that, the repressed Zimbabwean people tended to give support which will wane over time.
Lessons from Sierra Leone

A clear example being in Sierra Leone, where the military overthrew the then All People’s Congress (APC) government led by the now late Joseph Saidu Momoh in 1992. Generally, the Momoh regime then was one that could best be described as being corrupt, and which has as a daily way of life tribalism and cronyism, much to the distaste of national unity and peaceful coexistence mantra.

And so when it became apparent that the people were tired with the one party and authoritarian rule of the then APC party, they saw the intervention of the military in the political arrangement of the state as a rescue mission. The military coup of 25 year old Captain Valentine Strasser was, just like that of Johnny Paul Koroma, undemocratic and unacceptable. Nevertheless, unlike the one of Johnny Paul Koroma, Strasser’s coup was welcomed by the people. The coup was popular at the time because just like the one in Zimbabwe, most Sierra Leoneans were disgruntled with the ageing and ineffective APC leadership.

Part of National Provision Ruling Council (NPRC)’s popularity was a promise to end war and restore peace in Sierra Leone. The coupe – marked by widespread looting – recovered approximately $13.5 billion from the homes of ex-ministers and senior APC cabinet members. Although there were similar raids and arrests in Zimbabwe, no amount of money has been disclosed. Captain Strasser and his lieutenants, however, did not think compromise or working with RUF was in the best interest of the government and the people of Sierra Leone, just like Mnangagwa’s interim government did not include the opposition.

In Zimbabwe, the widely talked about National Translation Council (NTC) did not materialise. However, the Captain Strasser led military became drunk with power and at the end they even became worse than those they had removed from power. Captain Strasser even tried to lower the mandatory age requirement for a precedent from 45 to one more appropriate for his age 30 for the upcoming elections without success.

What followed was extrajudicial killings as was evident in the execution of over 20 people, including civilians and military officers after they were alleged to have attempted to stage a mutiny against the government. This in itself was ridiculous and outrageous and this was how they began losing public confidence and sympathy. Consequently NRPC lost the elections and had to hand over power to Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, the leader of the opposition, Sierra Leone people’s Party (SLPP).
Personal motivation

When looking at the ZDF intervention in state politics, one is immediately confronted by a number of questions. For example, what was the conditions that fostered or preclude the military intervention, the capacity and historical significance of the partisan ZDF and the part these two factors played in the success of the coup, the efficiency of the political system that the ZDF replaced, etc? But questions of morality and norms are also involved.

Yes Zimbabwe was torn by the political strife caused by Grace, ZANU-PF infighting resulting from succession theories – Lacoste vs G40 – but was that enough for the armed forces to intervene? Or there are some other sinister personal motives.

Justifying the military engagement in Zimbabwe politics, General Constantine Chiwenga waved the constitution about as he read his speech on the 14th of November. On the 15th of November General Dr Sibusiso B Moyo announced on the seized Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) that “The President is safe and sound – We are only targeting criminals around him” whereas an underrated factor could be Chiwenga’s personal idiosyncratic skill or possible his own state of security and protection of personal wealth.

The personal, psychological or financial circumstances of the generals may have played a critical role for instigating the coup. The generals, retired Defence Forces Commander, General, Constantine Chiwenga, the new Defence Forces Commander General, Philip Sibanda, retired Air Marshall, now Minister of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement, Perence Shiri, all of who have become fat cats, are some of the richest in the region. They own businesses, farms, safaris, huge houses and big cars among other assets, courtesy of ZANU-PF’s patronage network.

The military hierarchy is said to have plaid a pivotal role in money spinning companies in which the government has a stake such as Mbada Diamonds and Anjin Invstments which were reportedly exploiting diamonds in Chiadzwa under shady circumstances amid concerns of looting.

Chiwenga’s vast wealth which was amassed from 2002 was exposed during a divorce case, just like that of Chombo. Mnangagwa, Chiwenga, and Shiri – Black Jesus – have been implicated in the Gukurahundi massacres.

Having been involved in the politics of Zimbabwe for so long, it is clear that the ZDF generals are a powerful interest group and now – as we do not have a choice – need them to be reoriented to accept democratic values that respect civilian leadership.

One issue that stands out clearly is that, according to the Zimbabwe constitution in general and the Defence Forces Act in particular, the Zimbabwe military has no veto power and no basis to masquerade as kin-makers. The coup plotters were smart in giving it a revolutionary character, thereby duping the masses into supporting the coup. The revolutionary element was in that now famous peaceful march

To keep out the AU – the coup makers, were desperate to make it look like it had been determined by the people of Zimbabwe yet it was impossible for the people themselves to decide who is to rule or not. Many expected a National Transition Authority that included the opposition. Now what if the ‘new’ system does not function – which is more likely going to be the case – or if the people lack the means to change the order from military to civilian rule, for example – given the history of our partisan security forces – are we going to be able to establish a kind of order or succession that we wish to have through a peaceful, free and fair credible elections?
Partisan military regime

As with military governments elsewhere, ZANU-PF have a history of preventing opposition by eliminating or silencing what they call “subversive” elements in society, such as the MDC and activists, leading to systematic violations of human rights and widespread political repression.

A ZANU-PF military regime is one way in which the military generals can assume a dominant role in the country’s political system without the political instability that generally characterises praetorianism. The party military regime is an authoritarian regime based on an alliance of near equals. In this alliance the strong revolutionary party – ZANU-PF – is going to share rule with the armed forces generals as a reward for a job well done. Clearly ZANU-PF has provided the regime’s revolutionary political cadres, the lion’s share of civil servants, and the legitimatising ideology. The armed forces will continue to provide a key means of social mobilisation and control and receive a disproportionate influence in policy making. This sort of regime differs ideologically from a short term military rule. When the military assumes a moderator role and rules briefly, it generally has conservative objectives.

The enhancement of personal power is a key factor and top priority for individuals within the military who seek political role from the military. It is evident from case studies of military dominated governments that the maximisation of personal power and wealth is indeed a very high priority for coup leaders. More lucrative opportunities are associated with the involvement of military officers in the political process of the country. The best opportunities are off course in a country where bribery, cronyism, and corruption flourish as a matter of course.
The civil society should be vigilant and ready to engage the politicians through various non-governmental organisations or else militarised values are going to become a prominent element in the Zimbabwean political culture.

The international community response

Regime changes that result from a coup d’état against a democratically elected government is generally not accepted by the international community. However, as we have seen after the Egyptians ouster of Mubarak, the international community is prepared to recognise governments that are established after a successful revolution against an authoritarian regime.

The African Union (AU) has no tolerance if there is a military coup against a democratically elected government, meaning that if the coup is against an undemocratically elected government it is not unconstitutional. The AU and South African Development (SADC) is very clear on their opposition to the legal takeover of state power.

SADC, AU, and the West have all recognised Zimbabwe’s new government which came into power by illegitimate means, thereby ignoring the Gukurahundi, Murambatswina, farm invasions, and the 2008 electoral credentials that the coup plotters possess. Their statements were not strong enough against the military’s subversion of the constitutional order.

The military should have shown respect of our constitution when the incumbent ZANU-PF government refused to relinquish power after losing the 2008 elections. Instead the Zimbabwe Military establishment threatened to prevent any elected leader without liberation war credentials from leading the country which was an open violation of the Zimbabwean supreme law.

Had the AU stood firm against the military coup – Zimbabwe’s constitution would have been spared from this shredding – now there is a risk that military coups that are not called coup are going to be a ritual or an institution of Zimbabwe’s politics. Assumptions of power by unconstitutional means have just begun and they are going to become a norm rather than an exception, if Zimbabweans do not do something about this one.

Africa’s reaction to the coup in Zimbabwe is one of approval, manifested by vociferous verbal praise on the junta and lack international ostracism of the new government. It is now on the path to legitimate itself through another sham national election. At the same time – it seems – the African Union policy of preventing the spread of coups or the legitimation of military regimes, will not be applied on Zimbabwe.

How the population may respond

This is a new territory and experience for Zimbabweans, however president Mnangagwa’s success will be measured primarily through the country’s economic performance. To achieve this, he will need consistent support of all the important sectors in Zimbabwean society. Thus the degree to which president Mnangagwa succeeds in turning the economy around; dealing with corruption – walking the talk – is likely to have a strong effect on how both the population and ZDF think about military intervention in future. If he is successful, the view that the armed forces have done a good job will be entrenched – especially the job of ‘targeting criminals around the former president Mugabe’. On the other hand, if he fails, such prior assumptions are going to be questioned. In sum an unsuccessful Mnangagwa will diminish the probability that changing the country’s leadership will continue to be considered a legitimate role for the armed forces.

Another critical factor stems from the relationship of Mnangagwa’s government and civil society. The most important component of this relationship is the level of repression which according to his history is very tainted. The predicted higher levels of repression will stimulate stronger reactions from the civil society. Those who have relatives who have ‘disappeared’, killed in 2008, displaced during Murambatswina, and the Gukurahundi victims’ families are not likely to accept his rule. Needless to say that these issues need to be addressed as urgently as possible to generate confidence.

For the well-educated Zimbabwean population, awareness on the gains of democracy enjoyed in western countries should be sufficient to ensure that the military is permanently kept out of politics in Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, we are where we are. It is therefore very essential for the opposition and human rights organisations to address this matter. Human Rights Organisations should aim, not just a panacea for preventing future military takeover of political power – but also to fashion out a military that supports democracy and the constitution rather than undermining it.

The current 2013 constitution – flawed or not – is the supreme law of the country. The respect accorded to the country’s supreme law should outweigh opposition to or indeed our frustration with Mugabe that we should ecstatically welcome its shredding. Thus we cannot take lightly the violation of the constitution because clearly it was not the only way to remove Mugabe – the person – from power allowing ZANU-PF to fail the people of Zimbabwe over again. More of the old is what we are in for.

Although General Chiwenga quoted a part of the constitution that he interpreted to mean that he can remove an elected despot – the rest of his 14th November Press Statements gave him away. This was followed by ED Mnangagwa’s statement on 21 November, which by then it was clear that the coup d’état of 15 November was in pursuit of the Lacoste faction agenda against that of G40 in ZANU-PF, therefore, this coup is unconstitutional under section 208 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

Impact on Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF)

Though they have won the glory by removing Robert Mugabe their violent credentials, especially after the recent attacks on civilians, the legacy of fear and distrust of the security forces is resurfacing with more potency.

It is very unlikely that the ZDF’s Mnangagwa, whether radical or conservative is going to rule by consensus. So far they have not shown interest in ruling by force but it won’t be long therefore – given their history – it should not be assumed that they will continue to do so. There is no intent whatsoever to root out the criminal elements within ZANU-PF though there will be a few sacrificial lambs from the G40 faction – Chombo and Chipanga. One example is that Orbert Mpofu remains in government.

There is no doubt that civilian democratic rule is better than military rule. The military rule chances of preserving human and civil rights, good governance, democracy and transparency are also very limited. Save to say arbitrary military takeovers give the soldiers a negative image. The new government will be aware that a prolonged military rule will affect the ZDF as an institution. It can result in the loss of respect, glory, prosperity and professionalism for the ZDF therefore an election that will legitimatise the incumbent will be top priority.

This coup d’état, as I said earlier, may have been greeted with hope and satisfaction, but is the imposed leader – the Crocodile – capable of delivering that hope? Generally speaking, a coup d’état – supported by the masses or not – is an undue interference in the politics of a country. It may also prove worthwhile to re-examine and look closely at the intentions stated by the coup-makers during the initial stages, and whether these intentions were genuine or not.


Finally, ZANU-PF’s Congress outcomes has prompted the idea that there are other explanations based on the purely personal motives which the architect of a coup may have had. General Chiwenga is poised to become Vice President and most likely president after Mnangagwa’s departure.

However this individual motive does not explain how Chiwenga or indeed Mnangagwa won support for a coup from the masses, SADC, AU and the international community that include UK and USA. Only the EU has voiced the need for a democratically recognised government.

The generals themselves did not justify the takeover on personal grounds nor did they mention Conditions within the Zimbabwean society, or other circumstances, which could be cited as the reason for the change of power other than vague mention of the state of the economy and “we are only targeting criminals surrounding him”. This view draws one to think that the underlying motive may be personal.

Zimbabwe has had its own model of military rule since 1980. Samuel Huntingdon once argued that military coups are more often an end to democracy than the beginning of a transition to democracy. Zimbabwe is not going to triumphantly transition from military rule before – or indeed after – the elections, therefore we are not heading towards a liberal democracy anytime soon. This is because ZANU-PF cannot afford to put in place the required reforms without harming itself.

This government is illegitimate hence any elections that it may organise are also illegitimate.

%d bloggers like this: