What is the role of the military in a democracy? While this is a somewhat abstract question, the unfolding political situation in Zimbabwe exemplifies its very real ramifications. In November, the Zimbabwean military placed President Robert Mugabe and his family under house arrest. While Major General SB Moyo explicitly disavowed that this was a military takeover, world leaders urged for a peaceful resolution to the situation. As per a spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, Mr Guterres ‘underline[d] the importance of resolving political differences through peaceful means, including through dialogue and in conformity with the country's Constitution’.
So, what has led to the point where the military has assumed an ostensibly ‘caretaker’ role for Zimbabwe’s governance? At the risk of over-simplification, there are three core aspects to the current crisis: money, politics and the military. First, providing the bedrock for the broader political conflict, Zimbabwe has suffered from a number of severe economic crises over the past two decades. Between 2000 and 2008, Zimbabwe’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) nearly halved, ‘the sharpest contraction of its kind in a peacetime economy’ according to the World Bank. The poverty rate increased dramatically to more than 72%, a fifth of the population were left in extreme poverty, and basic services such as health care and education collapsed. By 2011, the nation ranked 173 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. Despite some resurgence in the following years, in 2016, Zimbabwe’s economic recovery again faltered, with the budget deficit rising to 10% of GDP. The ongoing crisis has been characterised by significant shortages of cash and the skyrocketing price of goods, leading to political tensions and anti-government protests.
Turning to the former political situation, President Mugabe was often decried as a dictator, guilty of widespread human rights abuses, corruption, economic mismanagement, and political repression. He ruled the country as the head of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) since independence from colonial rule in 1980. However, at 93 years old and ahead of the election next year, people became accutely aware that the world’s oldest head of State was not going to be around forever. Reflecting this impending reality, on 6 November, Mr Mugabe fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa for ‘traits of disloyalty’. Many saw this as the President paving the way for his wife, Grace, to become the Vice President and the eventual ruler of Zimbabwe. It was this perceived attempt to establish a Mugabe dynasty that sparked military action.
On 15 November 2017, armoured vehicles seized control of the State broadcasting service, locked down government buildings in the capital, Harare, and secured President Mugabe and his family under house arrest. In their public statement, the military guaranteed the security of the Mugabe family and asserted that they were ‘only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice’. There were reports of celebration and hope amongst the Zimbabwean people, and indeed, on 21 November, Mr Mugabe resigned and the ZANU-PF appointed ex-Vice President Mnangagwa in his place.
Amid the dire economic situation, the years of political misrule and now military intervention, Zimbabwe’s future is uncertain. Indeed, as some have emphasised, the downfall of the Mugabes will likely have ramifications across Africa with a number of leaders, including Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo, facing increasing pressure to step down. Irrespective of what happens next, the military’s role provides cause for reflection, if not concern. Their stated purpose has been to ‘pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in [their] country, which if not addressed may result in a violent conflict’. At first glance, this could fall within the expansive description of the military’s role in Article 212 of Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution. This states that ‘[t]he function of the Defence Forces is to protect Zimbabwe, its people, its national security and interests and its territorial integrity and to uphold this Constitution’.
Yet, the military’s goal to remove ‘criminals’ in the Zimbabwean government seems to go beyond this protective function and steps into the bounds of executive (governance) action. There are very clearly delineated roles for the executive, legislature and military in Zimbabwe’s constitution. And this separation of powers is crucial for accountable and transparent government. Even if this military intervention is ‘successful’, such ‘military governance’ potentially establishes a worrying precedent. At the very least, while not phrased in the most delicate manner, as stated by Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, ‘(n)obody wants simply to see the transition from one unelected tyrant to a next’.
Rebekkah Markey-Towler has completed a Bachelor of Arts majoring in International Relations and Political Science and a Bachelor of Law at the University of Queensland.