Considering that former President Robert Mugabe was a long-time ally of the Zimbabwean military, no one expected that he would be overthrown by the military. Mugabe had favored the military as one of the bulwarks against challenges to his regime, so why would they then turn against a man who had for more than four decades protected their interests? Mugabe appeared to have been caught completely unawares by this turn of events. At the height of his presidency everything suggested that he enjoyed the absolute loyalty of the military, so what factors explain why the military toppled President Mugabe?
Many observers and analysts within and outside Zimbabwe are still grappling with this question. I suggest that one of the reasons for the actions of the generals was that they stepped in to stop what they perceived as a calculated attempt by a faction of the ruling party to exclude the military top brass from political power. Because of the history of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe, former liberation fighters turned generals in the post-independence era are hailed as heroes and wield significant influence and power. These generals also considered themselves the power behind Mugabe’s presidency and had access to all the privileges and perks that accrued from their strategic position within the Zimbabwean state.
Some observers are of the view that the problem did not lie exclusively with the military but also with Robert Mugabe himself, who failed to live up to the “mutual agreement” he had with the military top brass. According to this school of thought, when Mugabe showed support for a faction of the ruling ZANU-PF party led by his wife, Grace, he lost the loyalty of his erstwhile military allies who had provided him political leverage throughout his thirty-seven-year rule.
Mugabe’s fall from power partly shows the role of the military as a formidable force in Zimbabwe’s politics. It is against this background that it should be understood that the greatest and most formidable challenge that the current President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is to face will likely come from the military constituency. The reality of the military element in Zimbabwean political life means that President Mnangagwa will have to contend with the military generals if he is to consolidate his hold on power. While some pundits believe that President Mnangagwa is a close ally of the military, it is important to note the distinction between being an ally of the military and actually controlling them. Although it is well-known that President Mnangagwa is a former guerrilla fighter, many forget that during the past thirty-seven years he served as a civilian government official — as a cabinet minister and more recently, as a vice president to former president Mugabe.
Expecting President Mnangagwa to behave like a military general or a dictator would be a miscalculation. He will have to strike a balance between the factions of the party while managing the powerful military interests within the country. Equally significant is the fact that Zimbabwe’s military generals in government will neither behave as civilian politicians who prefer to debate over public policies and operate within the rule of law, nor be guided by civilian ethos and practices. It is also more likely that while the current vice president, retired General Constantino Chiwenga may act as if he is a civilian, some of the practices of a military officer-in-politics will mark his behavior in his new office. It should always be remembered that General Chiwenga spent most of his life in the Zimbabwe National Army as a commander: both in war and peace. How then can President Mnangagwa transform and “civilianize” such a man?
This is not saying that the behavior of army generals in the Zimbabwean government is not compatible with civilian life, but considering the life the generals had lived as commanders in combat uniform, to imagine them becoming civilians in just three months would be expecting too much. President Mnangagwa is therefore faced with the challenge of transforming the office of the vice president (currently occupied by a former general), depoliticizing the military, and rebuilding a country ravaged by years of Mugabe’s policies.
There are also questions about the prospects for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe later this year. Will the military allow free and fair elections to take place? If Mnangagwa loses the election, will the army generals allow the candidate who wins the presidential elections to take over the reins of power? While it can be argued that it may be too early to think of army generals as political actors whose actions may undermine or subvert democratic politics, a lot will depend on the state of the ruling party and the opposition. There have been ongoing divisions within the ruling party and the opposition itself. Hence, Zimbabwe’s Army generals clearly understand the implications of taking any violent actions that may be seen as being antithetical to democratic principles and practices.
In the Zimbabwean political context in which former President Mugabe has been forced from power after thirty-seven years, it will require committed and disciplined politicians to fix the economic and political challenges facing the country. However, another formidable challenge confronting the country is how to transform army generals such that they fully embrace and accept the tenets of civilian democracy. What we are likely to see in the short-term in Zimbabwean politics will be characterized by a mixture of both military practices and civilian tendencies. Transforming the military’s role in the country’s politics will take some time, and calls for continuous engagement, confidence-building, and the strengthening of democratic institutions. As Zimbabwe enters into a post-Mugabe democratic era, let’s give the army generals some time to embrace political change.