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Is Army Obstructing Talks?

Some say security forces may be behind current impasse in power-sharing negotiations.
By Yamikani Mwando
With the adjournment of power-sharing talks, there are indications that the country’s security chiefs could be preventing a solution from being reached, say observers.

Analysts fear that the influential Zimbabwean military may be being consulted during the talks and opposing the terms of any deals mooted.

While South African president Thabo Mbeki is being lauded for bringing his Zimbabwean counterpart Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to negotiating table for face-to-face talks – the first for a decade – the historic meeting has yet to deliver substantive results.

The talks, which began on August 10 in the capital, Harare, have been put on hold after three days, in order to give Tsvangirai time to reflect, said the South African president.

Taking part in the negotiations are Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, the main faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, led by Tsvangirai, as well as the breakaway faction headed by Arthur Mutambara.

Although according to official results, Tsvangirai won the presidential poll held in March, he did not secure enough votes to avoid a run-off with Mugabe. The opposition leader would be expected to hold executive powers in any political deal brokered – something Mugabe is also reportedly resisting.

This week, the talks between the three leaders seemed to have collapsed irreparably when a deal did not materialise. Then, on August 13, the official Herald newspaper reported that Mugabe and Mutambara had signed an agreement without Tsvangirai – a report denied by Mutambara’s main ally in the faction.

According to other reports, when a deal was close to being brokered, security chiefs met Mbeki to “consult” on the discussions. South African newspaper The Star, which cited anonymous sources, said that South African mediators had met with Zimbabwean security chiefs, who “wanted to ensure that their interests are catered for in any agreement reached”.

The Zimbabwean military continues to wield power from behind the scenes in the country, and has been characterised by Tsvangirai and other critics as a “military junta”.

The all-powerful Joint Operations Command – whose members include the heads of the army, intelligence service, the air force, the police and the prison service – has been accused of keeping Mugabe in power after this year’s elections, which saw his popularity ebb to its lowest level since he took power in 1980.

In a May 2008 report, entitled Negotiating Zimbabwe’s Transition, the influential Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group, ICG, noted that “senior military commanders strongly opposed to the MDC have been instrumental in preventing a demo¬cratic transition following the 29 March election”.

During the March 29 elections and the June 27 presidential run-off, the military was accused by human rights groups of mobilising junior officers to conduct a terror campaign across the country, making it virtually impossible for people to vote for change.

The ICG report warned that any attempts to mediate a political agreement in Zimbabwe would have to deal with the security forces, highlighting concerns that the military remains all-powerful in the Zimbabwe crisis.

The country’s top security bosses – who are veterans of the bloody war of independence from Britain back in the 1970s – have in all major elections since the emergence of the MDC publicly declared they supported Mugabe. They have said they expected their lower ranks not to betray what they saw as the country’s struggle against “imperialism” by voting for the opposition.

This week, at the commemoration of Defence Forces Day on August 12, Mugabe thanked the army for defending the country’s “sovereignty” and showered medals on 19 of the generals who backed his re-election in the one-man presidential run-off poll.

“The Zimbabwe Defence Forces have demonstrated unparalleled patriotism and professionalism in the way they have carried the constitutional role of defending our nation,” he said.

In the past, these military men have said they are not ready to salute Tsvangirai if he were to become their commander-in-chief.

And they have much to lose. Many of the security chiefs stand accused by rights groups, including Amnesty International, of abuses dating back to the early years of the country’s independence.

An academic at the Journalism School of the National University of Science and Technology, who spoke under conditions of anonymity, said the security chiefs could be playing power games behind the scenes and preventing an agreement being reached.

That could explain the impasse the nation is witnessing, while the public is denied access to the finer details of the negotiations.

“God knows who all the negotiating parties consult. We can only speculate,” he said.

“But they could be approaching the military and saying to them, ‘Look, this is what we are talking about – what do you think?’ – and that could mean there is still a long walk towards breaking the deadlock.”

Bulawayo-based political analyst Jethro Mpofu told IWPR that the Zimbabwe military had moved from being “public servants” to political activists.

“In any democratic country, the role of the military is to protect the state and the citizens, but we have here men in the higher echelons of the military that have been politicised and publicly aligned themselves to Mugabe,” he told IWPR.

Yet, at the same time, ordinary soldiers are disgruntled with the system, he added.

In recent years, there has been widespread unrest within the army’s rank and file, which has seen mass desertions and a poor response to recruiting calls.

A member of Mutambara’s faction of the MDC told IWPR that the Zimbabwean military is “always involved in any transition” of power. However, the source refused to elaborate on security forces’ involvement in the present talks, saying he was not authorised to talk to the media.

“We are hoping for the best for the country, where self-interests are put aside. We have to be careful when talking about the military as this could send the wrong signals,” he said.

Yamikani Mwando is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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