Zimbabwe’s November 2017 Military Action: A Critique on Constitutionalism, Liberation Armies and Political Reality

By Lenin Tinashe Chisaira

First posted on the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, UCC, Ireland blog here.

1.     INTRODUCTION

From the time on 13 November 2017, when Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), General Constantino Chiwenga issued apress statement ostensibly protesting against purges occurring in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party, there were debates, justifications and criticisms concerning military interference in the affairs of a civilian government.  On 15 November 2017, a mere two days after the General’s statement, the ZDF blockaded the centres of State power in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare although insisting that the actions were not a military takeover of government. The centres of state power are contained in a few colonial era-buildings clustered around the Anglican (Church of England) Cathedral of St Mary’s and All Saints in Harare, the proximity to the Church bearing testimony of the country’s colonial past. The buildings that were barricaded include the President’s and Cabinet meeting offices at Munhumutapa Building (Executive); the High Court, Supreme Court and Constitutional Courts mainly housed in the Mapondera Building opposite Munhumutapa (Judiciary) and the Parliament Buildings (Legislative). The ZDF military action was code-named “Operation Restore Legacy” and resulted in the eventual resignation of President Robert Gabriel Mugabe and thenomination of former Vice President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa as Mugabe’s successor.

The ZDF relied on the preamble to the 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe to justify military intervention in politics. General Chiwenga indicated that people who had participated in the liberation struggle were being targeted by “counter-revolutionary elements” and hence the Zanu-PF purges signified disrespect for liberation struggles and violated the constitution. The constitutional preamble included the following phrase: “Exalting and extolling the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives during the Chimurenga/Umvukela and national liberation struggles and honouring our forebears and compatriots who toiled for the progress of our country” (ZDF Statement, 13 November 2017) (Constitution of Zimbabwe, preamble, 2013). This was mainly meant to pre-empt other constitutional provisions such as Section 211(3): “The Defence Forces must respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all persons and be non-partisan, national in character, patriotic, professional and subordinate to the civilian authority as established by this Constitution.” (Constitution of Zimbabwe, 2013)

In place of usual protestations aimed at usurpations of democracy and human rights, that usually accompany a coup d’état elsewhere in the world (See for instance the UN statement on the 2009 coup in Honduras), the ZDF military action was seemingly met with reasonable popular supportand sighs of relief around the world and in Zimbabwe. The opinion would not be meant to serve as either a vote of confidence or no confidence in the military action, but to make a constitutional and political realist analysis of the ZDF’s actions. The analysis will seek to balance the context of the Zimbabwean political realities and liberation legacies with the dictates of an era of democracy, constitutionalism and human rights.

2.     POLITICAL REALITY, DEMOCRACY AND THE END OF THE MUGABE ERA

At both domestic and international level, there was general acceptance of the November 2017 military action. This was mainly as consideration for the unique status of affairs in Zimbabwe where the one-man Robert Mugabe rule has been a feature for the 37 years between 1980 and 2017. On 18 November, thousands of Zimbabweans took to the street in a solidarity march with the ZDF. In addition, in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, the country’s erstwhile colonial power, the Foreign Secretary issued a statements that “Honourable Members on all sides of the House have taken a deep interest in Zimbabwe for many years – and I pay tribute to the courage and persistence of the Honourable Member for Vauxhall, who has tirelessly exposed the crimes of the Mugabe regime, visiting the country herself during some of its worst moments…Every Honourable Member will follow the scenes in Harare with goodwill and sympathy for Zimbabwe’s long-suffering people”. (Oral statement to Parliament- Situation in Zimbabwe: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s statement, 15 November 2017). Subsequently the leader of Zimbabwe’s neighbour, Republic of Botswana’s President Ian Khama clearly said that: “I don’t think anyone should be President for that amount of time. We are Presidents, we are not monarchs. It’s just common sense” (Reuters)

The November 2017 military action also exposes a number of realities about Zimbabwean politics, or indeed about the politics of post-colonial and post-liberation states. The events invite an analysis of the character and outlook of a liberation army turned into a national defence force as well as the growing acknowledgements of social and economic problems faced by the people of Zimbabwe. The November events reveal the following:

2.1.         Identity of the Zimbabwean Defence Forces as a liberation militia

The November 2017 military action highlighted the ZDF as a perennial liberation army that still beholds itself as a continuous product of a political and ideological process. In reality though, the ZDF was crafted from both military and political processes at the end of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle in 1979-80. At independence, the ZDF was built up from two main liberation armies, namely the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), which were military wings of Zanu-PF (and of the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union, ZAPU, which eventually joined Zanu-PF). Some units of the Rhodesian security forces were also amalgamated into the ZDF whilst extreme units of the Rhodesian army such as the Selous Scouts were immediately disbanded. Even during the integration of the armies with professional support from the United Kingdom, there was “some conflict between the agreed nature of the new force under training with Mugabe, whose ZANLA forces had been trained by the Chinese and who wished to adopt a people’s militia model on one side, and the British who wished to create a more conventional, professional army” (Jackson: 2011)

Therefore, having originated in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, the ZDF leadership still views itself as involved in political and ideological warfare against neo-colonialism, as the ZDF Statement of 13 November 2017 shows. The ZDF posture had problems in a democracy where the army was supposed to be a professional entity subordinate to the civilian government. The ZDF desire to be on a footing with the militaries of countries such as the People’s Republic of China where the People’s Liberation Army owes its founding to, and was under the control of, both the state and the Communist Party of China, was a bit misplaced. The ZDF was no longer the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army for starters. Rather the 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe clearly provided that: “Neither the security services nor any of their members may, in the exercise of their functions act in a partisan manner or further the interests of any political party or cause.” (Constitution of Zimbabwe, Section 208 (1) and (2))

2.2.         Political justifications of defending “the gains of the liberation struggle” and Anti-colonialism

The ZDF statement justifying interference in Zanu-PF politics, on 13 November 2017, stated that “…the Zimbabwe Defence Forces remain the major stockholder in respect to the gains of the liberation struggle and when these are threatened we are obliged to take corrective measures.” This statement conjured memories of past instances when the ZDF command evoked links to the liberation struggle to justify political involvement. The most comparative moment was on the eve of the 2002 Presidential Election when President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF were facing their toughest electoral challenge since 1980 at the hands of Morgan Tsvangirai and the newly formed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party. At that time the then ZDF Commander General Vitalis Zvinavashe issued a statement: “We wish to make it very clear to all Zimbabwean citizens that the security organisations will only stand in support of those political leaders that will pursue Zimbabwean values, traditions and beliefs for which thousands of lives were lost in the pursuit of Zimbabwe’s hard-won independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interests. To this end, let it be known that the highest office in the land is a straitjacket whose occupant is expected to observe the objectives of the liberation struggle. We will therefore not accept, let alone support or salute, anyone with a different agenda that threatens the very existence of our sovereignty” (ZDF Statement, 9 January 2002) (Tendi: 2013).

On the day of the November 2017 military action itself however, contrary to the statement of two days earlier, further reference to the liberation struggle was markedly absent in the ZDF statementread out on the morning of the military action. The ZDF instead justified military intervention in an anti-corruption tone. They stated that their action was targeted at allegedly corrupt cabinet ministers who were mostly pro-Grace Mugabe and these ministers had long been reportedly involved in the corrupt handling of public funds, allocations of public lands and interference with the operations of local governments. In the second ZDF statement therefore, the mission of the military action was stated as: “…targeting criminals around him (President Robert Mugabe) who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in order to bring them to justice” (ZDF Statement, 15 November 2017). This highlighted that the ZDF was beginning to balance its own interests with the anti-corruption sentiments and interests of the majority of the people.

The ZDF also initially indicated that they were going to take action against “neo-colonialism”. It iswidely argued and accepted that Third World countries such as Zimbabwe suffer from unfair economic and political relations with super powers as highlighted by the compositions of multinational institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, World Bank and International Monetary Fund among others. The military action and statements however gave no further helpful or tangible links of evidentiary value between “neo-colonialism” and the perceived “criminal elements” (i.e. cabinet ministers) who were allegedly detained at the KGVI (King George the Sixth) military barracks for interrogation.

2.3.         Acknowledgment of Social Economic Problems

In addition to addressing internal Zanu-PF politics, the November 2017 military action events partly sought to acknowledge socio-economic problems faced by the ordinary people. The ZDF 13 November statement stated that “As a result of squabbling within the ranks of Zanu-PF, there has been no meaningful development in the country for the past 5 years. The resultant economic impasse has ushered-in more challenges to the Zimbabwean populace such as cash shortages and rising commodity prices”.

This part of the statement was bound to evoke popular/grassroots support at a time where the country was facing economic and social problems such as cash shortages and administrative onslaught upon vendors and the urban poor.  The ZDF addressed issues of concern such as “cash-shortages” and “rising commodity prices.” Throughout the action they also acknowledged the importance of various sectors of Zimbabwean society such as the civil service, the judiciary, the legislators and the youths. These gestures were calculated at endearing the majority of the populace to the military action and judging by the mass marches of 18 November, the tactic worked.

3.     EFFECTS OF THE NOVEMBER MILITARY ACTION ON THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN ZIMBABWE

The November 2017 military action was still unfolding at the time of the writing. However, events surrounding the action have revealed a number of lessons and insights for the democracy and human rights movements in Zimbabwe and beyond. These include the need for an ever-vigilant and vibrant opposition and civil society sector, the need for clear-headed watchdogs for human rights and constitutionalism during the heady moments of a “revolution” and the need to check the implications of partisan military involvement on the future of democratic politics.

3.1.         The failure of mainstream opposition to develop alternative pro-poor economic policies

The main concern for people within Zimbabwe has been on organising around socio-economic challenges. In that regard Zimbabwe had had significant civil society, trade union and students’ movements at various stages of its post-colonial history. However, in the decade since 2005, there has been a marked failure by mainstream opposition parties and most of the civil society to develop pro-poor alternative economic plans. Instead these sectors have developed neo-liberal manifestos and pro-business policy briefs that have never resonated with the majority of the working class populace. In the absence of a pro-people civil society and opposition sector, the ordinary people saw the November military action as the clear salvation against the years of President Robert Mugabe’s economic and policy blunders.

3.2.         The palace coup that ended an era and the 2018 elections

The November military action was definitely a palace coup, in that it sought to replace a leader with another member of the elite, namely expelled Vice-President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa who had the support of the military. The long awaited ouster of President Robert Mugabe would likely remain the major contribution of the action. The military action, was however worrisome considering that the country was going for elections in mid-2018, and as in key Presidential elections in 2002 and 2008, there would likely be tacit support by the military for a Presidential candidate, namely Emerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa.  In the past years thatinvolvement was very problematic for the outcomes of the elections and resulted in reports of the military being involved in torture and human rights violations of political opponents to the army’s preferred associated, with in the past has been Robert Mugabe.

3.3.         Human rights, democracy and personalisation of the liberation struggle

As indicated before, Zimbabwe remains a product of the liberation struggle. In that regard, the mainstream opposition parties’ reluctant efforts to acknowledge that history has continued to be their downfall especially at elections and mass mobilisation.

The liberation legacy has therefore ben personalised by the Zanu-PF elite, and of late by the military elite. In essence the liberation struggle legacy presupposes any opponent to be a “counter-revolutionary” devoid of human rights. Hence the worrisome military style raids and detentions of cabinet ministers who were deemed to be G40.

4.     CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the November 2017 “Operation Restore Legacy” military action in Zimbabwe, highlight a state that was going through a social and economic crisis in addition to political uncertainty. These were fertile grounds for elite infighting within the ruling Zanu-PF party where military intervention unwittingly led to the end of the 37 years of the Robert Mugabe presidency, something which democratic elections and protest have failed to do. This was widely welcomed as a small but significant step towards a better and more democratic Zimbabwe. The November 2017 military action, no matter how it would play out to the end, will continue to be an interesting reference to the necessity of balancing demands for human rights, constitutionalism and democracy with an open-minded understanding of political reality.

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