Zimbabwean military commanders say it is not their job to crush growing political dissent and social unrest against President Robert Mugabe’s regime unless the constitutional order is under threat, it has been established.
Mugabe, 92, battling an economic implosion characterised by acute cash shortages, high unemployment levels and a ravaging El Nino-induced drought, is facing spreading resistance both within and outside his ruling Zanu PF party.
Social movements have escalated anti-government campaigns on social media, while liberation war fighters, who have been the backbone of the ruling party over the years, have also fallen out of favour with the ageing leader.
Despite reports of soldiers assaulting civilians in the capital following recent protests and the deployment of soldiers during a protest organised by 18 opposition parties under the auspices of the National Electoral Reform Agenda (Nera) a fortnight ago, senior military officials told the Zimbabwe Independent that the army wants political actors to find a political solution to the current crisis engulfing the country and not rely on the military to suppress people.
Zimbabwe’s military has previously intervened in civilian affairs, leaving a trail of human rights abuses and killings, including the Gukurahundi massacres.
“Commanders are saying forces should be sent to the streets as a last resort. Ordinarily, commanders don’t want to deploy soldiers to engage their own citizens. This is the hardest decision by any commander. The army prefers that politicians should find a political solution to the current situation. Soldiers cannot control protests forever although they can help to contain the situation temporarily,” said a senior army officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It is difficult for any army to be in such a situation. The army also believes that the police can still contain the situation, hence there is no need for their intervention. A written down agreement is usually required for such an intervention once the constitutional order is under threat.”
Another source added that the military was of the view that meetings between opposition leaders and the Joint Operations Command (Joc) — comprising of army, police and intelligence — could also help in deflating the growing tension in the country. In recent weeks Joc has been reaching out to opposition parties for meetings.
Riots broke at Beitbridge Border Post on July 1 with police failing to combat the demonstrators. This led to all the police officers being transferred after the Police Internal Security Intelligence at the border town complained the police officers had ignored their early warning calls on the riots.
Since then more protests have been held each week, prompting government to issue an order banning all demonstrations.
Desperate to thwart protests organised by Nera to demand electoral reform, the government last week imposed a two-week ban on demonstrations within Harare’s central business district.
The High Court, however, on Wednesday declared the ban invalid and unconstitutional.