For long in Zimbabwe’s politics, the military has been the decisive force keeping President Robert Mugabe in power. In early November, it proved yet again that it is the kingmaker of Zimbabwean politics, thwarting first lady Grace Mugabe’s plans to take over from her husband.
The influence that the army has exerted over the past decades has shaped Zimbabwe’s regime into a neopatrimonial, personalistic, military oligarchy, with a primary role of keeping Mugabe and ZANU-PF in power. After Mugabe’s resignation, the generals seem intent on introducing another member of the oligarchy into the presidency – most likely former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
But whoever takes over the reins of power in Zimbabwe is unlikely to change the status quo. The regime and its many clients (including the military) will stay intact.
A long history of military politics
The war of liberation in the 1970s charted the political future of Zimbabwe in many ways. The two military groups which led the war – Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) affiliated with Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) affiliated with the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) – laid the foundations of the Zimbabwean army.
The two political movements, ZAPU and ZANU, dominated the political scene after independence in 1980 and eventually merged into one party called (ZANU-PF) in 1987. The war of liberation remained the main source of political legitimacy, as the majority of the political elite had a role to play in the armed struggle.
The vice-like grip of the military on political affairs is likely, if not certainly, going to continue in the post-Mugabe era.
Robert Mugabe himself was the commander of ZANLA. His vice president, Mnangagwa, was also part of the ZANLA, although his “struggle credentials” were questioned during the political campaign against him led by Mugabe’s wife, Grace.
Therefore, since independence, the military has played a major role in the political scene in Zimbabwe.
Following the formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999, the military was involved in torture, kidnappings and killings of opposition supporters in the 2000 parliamentary elections. Before the 2002 elections, all senior military officers pledged that they would not serve under a president other than Mugabe, and the army joined the campaigns of intimidation of opposition supporters.
The army also participated in the 2000 land reforms which saw the forceful expropriation of land from white farmers. In 2001, Mugabe deployed troops on white-owned farms to “speed up” the process, which resulted in the death of more than a dozen white farmers.
Most notably, the army launched a violent campaign in the June 2008 presidential election run-off, after Mugabe lost the March 29 presidential election to MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe won the run-off through military intervention, but the outcome was dismissed by the international community.
Apart from being regularly mobilised to solve Mugabe’s political problems, the military has also acquired power over decision-making in various levels of the state.
The military is deployed to the commissariat of ZANU-PF and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to campaign and administer elections respectively. Its personnel occupies various positions in government ministries such as agriculture, land, justice and economic development. They run state programmes such as the Fast Track Land Reform and, of late, the Command Agriculture scheme.
Retired members of the military with liberation backgrounds are appointed as judges of the High Court, such as the current Judge President, retired Major General Justice George Chiweshe.
Others head key government parastatals such the Grain Marketing Board and the National Railways of Zimbabwe. While in these positions, members of the military are involved in partisan distribution of food handouts in times of drought. Those deployed in the justice system have been accused of subverting the rule of law, through selective application of the law against opponents of the regime.
The same applies to retired military personnel in the police force. They rarely arrest members of the ruling party for human rights abuses or other crimes.
A continuation of the old regime
The vice-like grip of the military on political affairs is likely, if not certainly, going to continue in the post-Mugabe era, and it will be the bedrock of a possible Mnangagwa presidency.
In this regard, the role of the military in the transition, given its power, economic influence, and monopoly of coercive force, will shape or break this transition. If the military decides not to hand over power to the preferred civilian faction led by Mnangagwa, the country could be turned into a vicious military dictatorship.
If the military resists such temptations and hands over power to Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s future will be more of the same: a limited political sphere and a dwindled economy exhausted by continuing kleptocracy.
The new president will continue to treat the state as his private fiefdom and give only rhetorical attention to formal political institutions. The elite’s access to farms, government inputs like maize seeds and fertilisers for farming, mining claims, fuel, government financial resources, and immunity from prosecution will be more compelling grounds for them to hold on to power than to push for reform.
Mnangagwa and his military backers are likely to go for authoritarian state capitalism along the Chinese model. There will be liberalisation of the economy without democratisation as long-term political and economic trajectories.
This means that ordinary citizens would not enjoy the benefits of the mining and agriculture potential of the economy, as elites will continue to loot the resources. The lack of medicine, good hospitals, clean water, schools and the general improvement of the population will continue.
Therefore, life for the average Zimbabwean is unlikely to change under the new presidency, unless there is huge investment to attract new money, to open closed industries and create new ones that come with jobs for the over 90 percent of unemployed people in Zimbabwe.
The new regime faces challenges of political legitimacy and an economy under recession and informalisation. In order to address the legitimacy question, the new regime will most probably seek to form a coalition government with opposition leaders such as Tsvangirai of the MDC.
Such a coalition could last until the next election in 2018 or be extended. This will pacify the population to avoid a possible uprising as a result of huge expectation for socioeconomic development.
Whatever happens with the government, however, the presidency will definitely be secured. The Zimbabwean military will be there, as always, the guarantor and kingmaker.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.