General Constantino Chiwenga, Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, today delivered a tersely worded press statement on the political situation in Zimbabwe. It marks another landmark and ominous moment in the on-going race to succeed the long-serving leader, President Robert Mugabe. It is useful to take a critical look at the general’s statement to assess its meaning and implications for Zimbabwe. It may also be of interest to the region and the international community.
Challenge to Mugabe
First, it marks a clear and direct intervention by the military in the turbulent succession race. Mugabe, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces has previously warned the military to stay away from ZANU PF’s succession race. Chiwenga’s statement is therefore a clear sign of defiance. It raises the question whether Mugabe has lost the military. His response will therefore be important to watch because it will say a lot about his authority. His authority over the military has never been tested in this way. If he does nothing, it might be regarded as a sign of weakness. If he puts his foot down, it could result in open confrontation. It will come down to who between the two men has the soldiers. But knowing Mugabe’s approach it is unlikely that the wily old man would have taken the drastic step he took in firing Mnangagwa without anticipating a response such as Chiwenga’s today. Therefore, Chiwenga might find that he has fallen neatly into Mugabe’s trap.
Second, the statement is a reaffirmation of the alliance between ousted Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and General Chiwenga which has long been an open secret. Two years ago, Mnangagwa introduced Chiwenga at a political rally as ZANU PF’s “real political commissar”. It was an insult to the current commissar, Saviour Kasukuwere, who is part of the G40 faction. The fact that the statement has come so soon after the sacking of Mnangagwa demonstrates that it is designed to back him. It is a clear fight-back from the Lacoste faction. In short, it says Lacoste is not dead yet. They are still fighting and they have just escalated the fight. But it might be argued that it also exposes the general as a factionalist, something that Mugabe would have been waiting for. Now, unless Chiwenga moves quickly, he might find that Mugabe has a solid reason to pronounce final judgment upon his military career.
Although Chiwenga tried to dress it in the language of protecting the liberation legacy, this is really a factional defence. The military did not come to the defence of Joice Mujuru and her allies – most of the senior ones liberation veterans – when they were hounded out of the party and government in 2014-15. If the logic of protecting the liberation generation is genuine, they would have intervened then. They did not defend Joice notwithstanding the fact that her late husband was the first black general in the military. The current intervention is purely a matter of protecting factional interests, couched in the respectable language of safeguarding liberation legacy and the national interest.
The general also speaks about the lack of development since 2013 as the factional wars escalated and the economic challenges. This is an important issue that has been raised by the opposition before but nobody took notice. If that is a justification for intervention, the military would have done so in 2008 when things were worse that they are now. The language of defending the nation makes good reading but it is really a defence of a faction’s interests.
Third, the statement contains a threat of intervention, but it is vague and ambivalent on the nature of that intervention. The general says “we are obliged to take corrective measures” when “the gains of the liberation struggle are threatened.” What does he mean by “corrective measures”?
He adds, “It is our strong and deeply considered position that if drastic action is not taken immediately, our beloved country Zimbabwe will definitely be headed to becoming a neo-colony again” What does he mean by “drastic action”?
Later, he states, “when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in”. What does he mean by “step in”? What is the sum total of these threats of intervention? Is the General threatening a military coup?
These are important questions. They attract a temptation to suggest that there is a coup brewing. But no seasoned soldier would be so foolish as to announce a coup in advance. A coup is simply executed and announced after power has already been usurped. So no, this is no coup.
If the intention was to threaten one, then it is an extremely clumsy effort. Chiwenga knows that a coup will not wash in the region. It is old fashioned way to take power and whoever takes power will struggle for legitimacy. Chiwenga himself is careful to qualify the threat of intervention in the statement. He does this by listing a number of rebellions during the liberation war in which the military intervened but never took power. He says, “all these rebellions were defused by the military, but at no point did the military usurp power”. It reads like a disclaimer that the intervention would not be to take power. But it still leaves open the question as to what constitutes the “corrective measures”, “drastic action” or “stepping in” that Chiwenga referred to in his statement.
However, of note is that after all the bravado exuded in the body of the statement, it ends on a disappointingly flaccid note. A more robust statement would have made tougher demands such as the reinstatement of Mnangagwa or that he be given an opportunity to be heard. It was his sacking which clearly prompted the intervention yet there’s nothing in the demands that speaks to his situation. Instead, it urges the party to stop purges and that the so-called counter-revolutionaries must be “exposed and fished out.” It also urges that everyone must have equal opportunities to exercise their rights at the special congress. Given the on-going campaign to expel Lacoste supporters, this seems more like a plea to stop the bleeding. With the way the statement and conclusion read, it wouldn’t be far wrong to describe is as all bark and no bite.
Exposure to charges
However, in making this bold statement, the general has also exposed himself (and his peers) to allegations of undermining the authority of the President and/or subverting constitutional government under the Criminal Law (Codification) Act. Many opposition politicians and activists, among them Morgan Tsvangirai, Evan Mawarire and more recently American journalist Martha O’Donovan have been arrested and accused of one or more of these offences merely for challenging or allegedly insulting Mugabe. It is hard to see how these tame political challenges can be any worse than the hard-hitting statement coming from a military general. Ordinary people without access to arms have been accused of treason for saying less. He tries to cover this by referring to Mugabe as the “only one” Commander in Chief, but the damage had already been done. For his part, if Mugabe does not take action in response to this direct challenge, his authority will be seriously questioned. In that case, he will be accused of having lost the military and his authority in general. The problem is that he would have to deal with all those that were there with Chiwenga, for he was not acting alone. One could say Mugabe has put himself in a big fix by failing to manage the succession race.
In any event, Chiwenga indirectly accuses Mugabe of having lost control of the party. He rails against what he calls “counter-revolutionary infiltrators who are now effectively influencing the direction of the Party”. These counter-revolutionaries are obviously the G40 faction, among them Professor Jonathan Moyo, Saviour Kasukuwere, Patrick Zhuwao and Grace Mugabe herself. These, he describes them as “counter-revolutionaries who have infiltrated the Party and whose agenda is to destroy it from within.” This is based on the theory that Moyo and his allies want to destroy ZANU PF from within, a charge that has been used very often by Lacoste. He accuses them of hijacking the party and takes great exception to “reckless” statements made against the military. Grace Mugabe has repeatedly been critical of the military, at one point accusing them of a plot to assassinate her son. If G40 are controlling the direction of the party as alleged by Chiwenga, it suggests that Mugabe is no longer in control, itself a serious charge against the President.
He created the monster
It is not the first time that the military has intervened in civilian politics. The irony is that Mugabe allowed and condoned the monster because it favoured him. They did so in 2002, before the presidential election when they issued a terse statement which was widely interpreted as supportive of Mugabe and against his main challenger Morgan Tsvangirai. They also did so in 2008 for the same reasons and a number times after that, generals have made political statements in favour of ZANU PF but prejudicial to the opposition. However, this is the first time they have made a statement that directly and blatantly challenges Mugabe’s authority. The monster that he nurtured is now threatening to devour him.
If Chiwenga’s statement is a reckless challenge to Mugabe’s authority, could it be that it is a pre-emptive strike, made in the knowledge that Mugabe was already preparing to retire him? Chiwenga and other generals have been serving at Mugabe’s pleasure on contracts renewed annually. If Chiwenga got wind of the fact that Mugabe want to retire him and others, it might be that he decided to throw the kitchen sink at his boss. It could be his way of not going out without a fight. This is why it will be interesting to see how Mugabe responds to the unprecedented challenge that has been posed by one of his serving generals.
Under Zimbabwe’s Constitution, it is Parliament that can pass a vote of no confidence in the President and his government. But here, with this statement, the military has all but issued a vote of confidence in its boss. It is hard to see how Mugabe can walk away from this without damage unless his stamps his authority. That of course will also risk a response from the military. As for G40, they know now that the war is far from over. Lacoste has now activated its “nuclear option” through its partners in the military. It is now or never. Whatever happens now, there are clearly no more bridges. It is an historic time: ZANU PF and Zimbabweans politics are being redefined in the most dramatic fashion.
Earlier this year, I warned that the regional body SADC and members states needed to watch the situation very carefully given the developing succession race in Zimbabwe. It was already foreseeable that things would deteriorate unless the succession issue was handled differently. I warned that the unique constitutional arrangement whereby succession to national leadership is settled by the succession in ZANU PF as long as it’s in power lent the process to some serious contestations and complications which could prove chaotic and costly. It appears we have now reached that stage where the situation could become really messy and bloody. It is important for the region and the international community to be on high alert. There is here all the ingredients for a serious confrontation between the civilian and military authorities and this is a recipe for disaster. The human cost of all this cannot be overstated. All because one man failed to manage his succession when he had many opportunities to do so.