Zimbabwe: Whither the Army?

Every day that passes in Zimbabwe brings news--but never the news that really counts. A nationwide strike called by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to protest the government's 18-day delay in announcing presidential-election results never fully materialized this week. The reasons for that may be less political than economic: 80 percent of Zimbabwe's 12 million people are unemployed, and those lucky enough to have jobs clearly felt they couldn't afford to lose a day's pay. The government, meanwhile, delayed for yet another day a petition by the opposition to block the government's bid to stage a recount of parliamentary voting. And a high-court judge in the capital Harare ruled that the government didn't have sufficient evidence to continue detaining two Western journalists and acquitted them on charges of illegally covering the election. But on news of the election itself, there was silence.

As the uncertainty over the results continues, one lingering question was whether the military would remain loyal to Robert Mugabe, the 84-year-old autocratic leader who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from white minority rule in 1980. The first signs are ominous indeed. Already Mugabe has begun to mobilize the most loyal of his shock troops in what many see as a crackdown and possibly a prelude of much greater violence to come. Reports of post-election intimidation and brutality are widespread and growing, especially in rural areas where the opposition has failed to penetrate very extensively, and Mugabe's support has typically been violently coerced from a poor and powerless constituency. These first signs of brutality and intimidation fit a pattern, says Nicole Fritz, director of the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC), which has compiled a dossier of cases of assault and torture naming security forces and militia leaders inside Zimbabwe. "We've received information, some of it from sources inside Zimbabwe's security establishment, indicating that youth militias, central-intelligence operatives and war veterans are being deployed under the command of approximately 200 senior Army officials throughout the rural areas," says Fritz, "The intention seems to be to use violence and to intimidate voters prior to any runoff or rerun of the elections."

Mugabe's enforcers have good reason to do his bidding. For starters, top military figures are allegedly some of the biggest beneficiaries of the lucrative black-market deals that have proliferated in the last decade when white-owned farms were dismantled and occupied, when the inflation rate began its precipitous ascent to its current high-water mark of more than 100,000 percent, and when corruption began to rot out the economic infrastructure. Top military leaders were some of the first beneficiaries of the farm evictions that began in 2000. The land grabs were illegal, but that didn't stop the process. Backed by so-called war veterans, many of whom were far too young to have participated in the war for independence, some of these figures grabbed the choicest spots. Now, "the generals," as they're called, stand to lose their farms if the MDC takes power and begins to investigate. "They are afraid of going to jail if someone else takes power," says Texas Jiji, 36, a former lance corporal in the Zimbabwean Army and now a refugee leader in neighboring South Africa, where estimates are that more than a million of his fellow citizens have fled.

The current standoff has highlighted the volatility between the opposition MDC and the security forces, who for years earned their bread by keeping the MDC in a more or less constant state of physical and psychological terror. Police, Army and plainclothes officers from the ubiquitous Central Intelligence Organization have formed the vanguard of the assault against the opposition over the last seven years, a time when violent crackdowns left hundreds dead and thousands more injured. More than a few simply disappeared. Many of those responsible could conceivably face charges of torture and crimes against humanity should the opposition sweep to power. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has pledged not to prosecute Mugabe but made no such promises to the generals. The Southern African Litigation Centre is also urging South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority to arrest perpetrators for crimes against humanity if they enter the country. "We know these guys come regularly to South Africa, on business and for personal reasons," says SALC's Fritz. The generals may have even more reason to be concerned about South Africa's role now. Pretoria's ruling African National Congress, now under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, has been much more vocal in its disapproval of the elections than lame duck President Thabo Mbeki ever was.

The fact is that the fighting forces at Mugabe's disposal are much diminished. A growing unhappiness in the rank and file has been spreading for years. Analysts estimate that some 10,000 soldiers--fully one quarter of the force--has left the military or fled the country in recent years. One deserter, Tapiwa Mugadza, 20, a private formerly based in the southern city of Bulawayo, fled his unit and escaped Zimbabwe last July by cutting through a fence in the middle of the night. He has been on the run ever since. Mugadza, who used a different name for this article for fear of his life, says he fled because he couldn't accept the orders he was being given. In an interview with NEWSWEEK last Friday, he said he was "being told to assault MDC supporters at rallies, which we did using gun butts and battle sticks." Mugadza was one of several hundred soldiers deployed in the spring of 2007 to quash an MDC rally. During the protest, police and soldiers badly beat Morgan Tsvangirai--the man widely believed to have defeated Mugabe in the presidential race--over the head. "As a Christian, I can't abide by such things," Mugadza said recently, "But in the Army you have no option but to do what you are told. That's why I escaped."

The Army has other troubles, too. "The Army is not a unified, monolithic organization," says Chris Maroleng, a Zimbabwe expert at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies, "It is divided by rank, ethnicity and political affiliation." Some 40 percent of soldiers live outside of barracks, exposing them both to the same kinds of economic hardships that have undermined the regime they are meant to be bolstering, and undermining the sense of unit cohesion that accrues naturally to soldiers when they are forced to live and fight together. "They have been exposed the same difficulties of the population, and so many are unhappy about acting violently against civilians," says Maroleng. Aware of the dangers of a large-scale military revolt, Mugabe has always surrounded himself with his most loyal enforcers--groups who are beholden to him and willing to carry out the dirtiest work: the Fifth Brigade, a group of North Korean-trained soldiers who carried out the Matabeleland massacres in the early 1980s, which reportedly killed upwards of 20,000 innocent civilians; the murky Central Intelligence Organization, which spies on ordinary Zimbabweans; the National Rapid Reaction force, the Presidential Guard, and youth and war veterans' militias, who are used ruthlessly to squash civil disobedience.

In recent weeks photographs of viciously beaten citizens have been winging their way around the world via e-mail as Zimbabweans alert the world to the bloody results of the aging ruler's latest efforts to cling to power in the face of his party's defeat in the parliamentary ballot and his own apparent loss of the presidency. As before, such appeals will fall on the deaf ears of Mugabe and his military men, who have everything to lose along with the election.