BSR: implications of changes to the security sector


There have been important changes to the security sector and government, demonstrating yet another chapter in this season of major political developments in Zimbabwe. It is important to consider the meaning and implications of these changes.

Writing his own narrative

First, in terms of personnel, these changes demonstrate efforts by the new administration at reconstituting and re-configuring the state and its key structures after taking power in dramatic circumstances last month. President Mnangagwa is clearing out residual elements of the old regime and setting up a new team that is amenable to his agenda. Having come to power on the back of the military, he is well aware of its power and the threat it poses, hence the need to reconfigure it. The security sector under the Mnangagwa administration will therefore be different from the one that served under Mugabe.

Now or soon to be retired are General Constantino Chiwenga, as Commander of the Defence Forces, Air Chief Marshall Perrance Shiri as head of the air force, and Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri as head of police. These senior retirements come after the departure of former Director General of the Central Intelligence Organisation, Happyton Bonyongwe in October. Bonyongwe had been appointed as Minister of Justice in Mugabe’s last Cabinet reshuffle. He was not appointed in the new Mnangagwa administration.

Of the retired generals Retired Air Chief Marshall Shiri is the new Minister of Agriculture while General Constantino Chiwenga is expected to be the Vice President. Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri on the other hand has effectively been sacked through retirement. He was on a one year renewable contract. He is the only top general who leaves without getting redeployed. The police service which he headed was neutralised and suspended for more than a month, its role having been usurped by the military. He was already on his way out. Another important figure is Major General Sibusisiwe Moyo, who has been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General upon retirement and he is already the Foreign Affairs Minister.

Militarisation of government?

One view is that this movement of the top generals from the security sector to civilian government represents the militarisation of government. If this view is correct, it is certainly not a new one. Military historians have long chronicled and explained the phenomenon of militarisation of the state and government since even before independence. In a 2009 paper on security sector reform, Knox Chitiyo explained how these processes of politicisation of the military and militarisation of the state have taken place in phases since independence. To the extent that the argument on militarisation is true, it is not new. If anything, it is the culmination of a process that has been going on for quite some time and will probably continue well into the future. Part of this is a result of our specific history in which the political parties that became the governing authorities after independence had armed wings which had their own command structures which were heavily politicised and never really shed off these characteristics after independence.

Reward or assertion of authority?

Another view is that the movements are a reward to the military for its role in dislodging Mugabe last November. It was the military that rescued the Mnangagwa bid for the presidency after he had been sacked by Mugabe on 6 November. On 15 November, the military moved in to control the state and this set off a chain of events that led to Mugabe’s resignation and the consequent installation of Mnangagwa as his replacement. A big picture analysis of these events shows that while there are many claimants for credit for Mugabe’s departure, the real game changer was the military. This is therefore their thing and it is hardly surprising that they are now moving in to occupy important positions within government. Rather than see it as a reward therefore, another view is to look at these movements and promotions as the military merely asserting its authority within the state. In other words, the generals who have joined government have not been moved. They have moved because that is what they want. This view reflects the growing power of the military with the state.

Spoils of war

It is also important to consider the movements within the broader framework of the war to succeed Mugabe. There were two factions in ZANU PF: Lacoste, which favoured Mnangagwa and G40 which had Grace Mugabe as its putative head. As is now well known, Lacoste won the war. However, to win the war, Lacoste needed the might of the military. Whenever there is war, there are spoils that are shared by the victors. Positions in government and political power are part of these spoils of war that are now being divided between and among the victors of the succession war. There are other spoils of war which are yet to be shared, particularly in the economic sector. This means there are likely to be more retirements and redeployments to important economic areas, specifically parastatals and other state institutions. This also shows why the opposition never had a chance to be part of the post-Mugabe government. They were never part of the plan. As Charamba had warned during the succession war, “chine vene vacho chinhu ichi”, it was always an exclusive club to which outsiders had no share. Using different language, Chinamasa had reminded the nation during the height of events in November, that this was a ZANU PF affair. He was roundly criticised but with hindsight, Chinamasa was merely reporting what was common cause among them.

If the retiring General Chiwenga is appointed Vice President, as is widely expected, it also raises questions about how the Mnangagwa presidency will play out. Will Chiwenga be satisfied to end as Vice President? Every deputy headmaster must hope that one day he will become the headmaster. Vice Presidents have never really exercised any power. Given the circumstances by which Mnangagwa got into power, this could well be a unique power sharing arrangement between a political faction and the military. Much will be revealed in the next few months by the manner in which functions and duties are allocated.

Balance and merit

Zimbabwe’s security sector, like the government has also been managed in order to preserve a balance of power between the former fighting guerrilla armies of the liberation struggle. The reconfiguration of the security sector has elements of trying to preserve that balance. However, for the first time, the balance appears to favour the former ZIPRA. Two of the top commanders have roots in ZIPRA. These are the new Commander of the Defence Forces, General Valerio Sibanda, and new boss of the Air Force, Air Marshall Elson Moyo. Retired Major General Edzai Chimonyo, a veteran ZANLA commander, who was serving as Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Tanzania has been brought back to lead the Zimbabwe National Army. (It’s interesting that the press statement says he was on secondment to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If this is the case, there was arguably a breach of the constitution which prohibits the deployment of serving officers except in emergency situations. It would be interesting to do an audit to check how many military officers are serving in civilian areas on this so-called secondment). The new boss of the CIO is Isaac Moyo, who was ambassador to South Africa until his new appointment.

In this reconfiguration of the top echelons of the security sector, Mnangagwa cannot be accused of favouring his former ZANLA comrades ahead of former ZIPRA cadres. He appears instead, as a fair and pragmatic leader who places merit ahead of patronage. General Sibanda is a career soldier who has distinguished himself well and is well respected. Air Marshall Elson Moyo commands respect as one of the top officers who actually had flying experience and trained many officers.

Nevertheless, despite this apparent positive, it would be interesting to see who among the senior military personnel was overlooked for promotion. In any reshuffle, the promoted will be happy and those overlooked will be displeased. One notable absentee in the list of promotions and movements is Major General Douglas Nyikayaramba whose voice has been prominent on political matters in recent years. He doesn’t feature so far in any promotions or movements to government. Nevertheless, there is still the Commissioner General of Police vacancy which must be filled. The likelihood of this going to another ex-military man is high.

The Political Commissar

An important movement is that of Major General Engelbert Rugeje, who has been promoted to Lieutenant General upon retirement from the military. He was appointed ZANU PF’s Political Commissar at the recent Extraordinary Congress. The significance of this movement from the military into the engine-room of the political party cannot be overstated particularly with elections due in less than 8 months. The Political Commissar is the organiser and mobiliser of the party. It suggests that the election campaign will carry a heavy military complexion. Statements attributed to prominent voices such as Ambassador Chris Mutsvangwa and Josaya Hungwe over the role of the military in the election campaign only serve to strengthen this impression.

However, contrary to general fears, the strong presence of the military does not necessarily mean it will be a violent campaign. On the contrary, there is no incentive for the new administration to use violence since they are well aware that it undermines the credibility and legitimacy of elections. If ZANU PF learnt a lesson in 2008 it was that open violence is ultimately self-defeating. That is why they were never going to resort to open violence before the 2013 elections. Rather, they adopted more subtle but equally effective ways to get the desired outcome. They are well aware that after the events of November the run-up to the 2018 elections will be closely watched by the rest of the world and international capital. The opposition will have to study the changing outfit and its methods because it certainly won’t be business as usual. The election cannot be fought as if they are fighting Mugabe because this will be a different creature with different methods.

Broader changes

The changes in the security sector must also be seen in the broader context of pending changes in the structures of the state and government. Already, the Minister of Finance stated in the budget statement that all civil servants who have reached or are past retirement age will be retired. This means a number of senior civil servants who have served under Mugabe and were past their retirement age will soon be leaving the civil service. This will give the Mnangagwa administration yet another opportunity to make its imprint on the structures of the state through appointments and promotions. Already, the Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, Justice Rita Makarau left office in unclear circumstances having resigned unexpectedly with less than 9 months to an election. Her replacement is critical as the role has a fundamental effect on the next election. If that replacement has a military background, that could be ominous.

A new broom

The changes are not unusual given that there is a new boss taking over after someone monopolised power for 37 years and created a system of patronage that served him well. After 37 years, Mugabe had created a system whose tentacles spread into every facet of the state and society. Mnangagwa’s first task has been to change that, ensuring that he has the human factor that is loyal to his cause. This itself is not unusual.  It’s what happens whenever there is a new boss in any organisation: they bring their own people and replace loyalists of the old regime. It was to be expected in this context where a bitter succession war was fought.

Creating a buy-in

Further, there is a strategic element to these appointments in that they have now become heavily invested in the long-term future of this administration. By appointing or promoting them with only a few months before the next election, it means they have an interest in the success of the appointing authority at that election. They will do all they can to ensure Mnangagwa prevails because his failure could also affect their long-term prospects in their new offices. By removing the old guard and bring in a new crop that identifies with his presidency, Mnangagwa is minimising the potential effects of a “Bhora Musango” strategy by residual elements of the old regime.

The horses that bolted

What does all this mean for the opposition? The outcry over the past few days has been over the continued presence of the military on the streets as part of Operation Restore Legacy, which began on 15 November when the military took over control of the state. On 18 December, the army announced the end of Operation Restore Legacy and that it was returning to the barracks. The opposition has however also expressed concern over the role of the military in elections following statements by senior members of ZANU PF. There is also concern over the appointment of military officers to ZANU PF and government roles. In this regard, the opposition and civil society are pointing to provisions of the constitution which prohibit the military from interfering in political affairs.

The trouble with this is that the horses bolted in November and when they did, no one really cared. The horses were allowed to bolt because most people were too excited to see Mugabe go. That was the immediate interest and everything else did not really matter. The opposition even thanked the military for their intervention in the removal of Mugabe. In fact, in that euphoria, the High Court ruled that the military actions were perfectly constitutional. No-one, not even the opposition parties or human rights groups have challenged that ruling. But the truth is that this intervention had breached the constitution. Of course, the opposition was conflicted and in difficult situation. It could not have challenged the military intervention on constitutional grounds without drawing the wrath of the people who were desperate to see Mugabe go. The opposition chose to go with public sentiment rather than defend the constitution and appear to be defending Mugabe.

Nevertheless, and it must be accepted that taking this position had consequences which the opposition and the people must now live with. One is that it took away the opposition’s moral authority to question the legality and legitimacy of the new administration, even though this could be one of its strongest arguments going towards the next election. Furthermore, having failed to challenge the interference of the military in politics on constitutional grounds, it would become more difficult to do so in future. This becomes more apparent when one considers how this would play out if the matter was brought before regional and continental bodies – SADC and the AU. When these two bodies tried to intervene in November, they were told in no uncertain terms to shup up and stay away from Zimbabwe. It will not be easy in future to approach the same bodies complaining that the military is interfering in politics. As already pointed out, the courts have set a precedent, which has not been challenged, which says what the military did was constitutional and lawful, so recourse in the courts could also be a cul-de-sac. This whole episode is a reminder that while going along with popular sentiment may be the easiest thing to do, it might not always be the most strategic thing.


What to do now? The changes to the security sector and government are obviously meant to strengthen the new administration in the run-up to the next election. They could argue in return that it is part of the security sector reform that has been demanded by the opposition for many years. After all, they will argue, the majority of the generals are leaving office and moving into other areas. However, critics will argue that the heavy military presence in government and the party gives weight to the argument that the military is capturing both the government and party. It will also increase fears that the election in 2018 may become compromised by military involvement.

Yet the new administration will also be keen to have legitimacy after the next election. Using the same old methods may help it win power, but it will inevitably erode any claims to legitimacy, which will affect any potential for economic progress. They will suffer just like Mugabe’s administrations before them. This is not something they want. This suggests that despite the increasingly militaristic outlook, its methods will probably be more subtle and this why the opposition must be more careful. The new administration will do everything to retain power but only enough to pass the legitimacy test. As I have stated before, they did not wrestle power in such dramatic fashion in order to lose it less than 9 months later in an election. Yet, as the opposition raises legitimate concerns over electoral reforms, they must also begin to craft persuasive messages to woo an electorate that will be facing a ZANU PF without Mugabe for the first time in 37 years.