Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mugabe Rewards Loyal Commanders

President honours army top brass including those accused of orchestrating election campaign violence.
By Norbert Gogodza
President Robert Mugabe knows how to keep military officials happy – especially those that have helped him retain power amid slipping popularity ratings. To coincide with Defence Forces Day commemorations on August 12, the president decorated his top commanders and promoted them to key positions.

Addressing a football stadium in the dirt-poor township of Highfield, Mugabe hailed the Zimbabwean army for standing by him, despite a deep political and economic crisis which critics blame on his government. He also paid tribute to them for “keeping peace in Zimbabwe”.

His speech flew in the face of a damning report by New York-based rights group, Human Rights Watch, which blamed state security forces for the violent campaign against opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, activists in the aftermath of the disputed March 29 general election.

More than 100 people were murdered during the violent election period in Zimbabwe, 200,000 were internally displaced and others were subjected to beatings, abductions and torture, according to opposition and rights groups.

However, Mugabe tells the story differently. The peace in Zimbabwe, he said “is a result of the alert, vigilant and patriotic manner [in which the soldiers] have conducted their day-to-day duties”.

Some military officials singled out for praise this week were instrumental in a campaign to re-elect the president in a run-off on June 27, in which he was the sole candidate. The second round of the presidential race was boycotted by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai because of state-sponsored violence against his supporters as well as restrictions on his campaign.

Among those promoted was Brigadier General George Chiweshe – chairman of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, ZEC – who was elevated to major general.

After the March 29 presidential election, the ZEC delayed reporting results for five weeks before announcing that the winner Tsvangirai had not secured enough votes to avoid a run-off.

When the opposition leader pulled out of the run-off in the midst of escalating violence, Chiweshe declared his withdrawal from the race had been filed too late and was thus illegal.

“Accordingly, the commission does not recognise the purported withdrawal and is therefore proceeding with the presidential run-off election as planned,” he told journalists two days before the June 27 vote.

Chiweshe, a lawyer who has served in the Zimbabwe High Court, was honoured as a Grand Officer of the Zimbabwe Order of Merit – the country’s second-highest military award.

Mugabe conferred the same award on Happyton Bonyongwe, head of feared national intelligence agency the Central Intelligence Organisation, CIO. Bonyongwe, a retired brigadier general in the Zimbabwe National Army, was promoted to the rank of major general.

CIO agents were accused of orchestrating much of the violence during the election period in an effort to stamp out resistance to Mugabe’s re-election. They were also accused of rigging the vote by stuffing ballot boxes.

Head of the prison services Brigadier General Paradzai Zimondi, who spearheaded a crackdown on opposition activists, was also decorated this week.

Zimondi, who was promoted to major general, sits on the Joint Operations Command, JOC – a group of security service chiefs. The JOC is believed to have urged Mugabe – who had reportedly conceded defeat after the March 29 vote – to call a run-off with promises that they would overturn the 84-year-old leader’s defeat.

Several serving officers were also honoured, including Brigadier General Engelbert Rugeje, who was promoted to the rank of major general. Rugeje reportedly spearheaded a violent campaign in the south-eastern province of Masvingo – one of the provinces worst hit by the election violence – between April and June this year.

The Zimbabwean army – commanded by former guerrillas who fought for independence under Mugabe’s leadership in the 1970s – helps to secure ZANU-PF’s hold on power in the face of mounting opposition to his 28-year rule, say analysts.

In the last eight years, a number of serving and retired army officers co-opted by Mugabe into the civilian administration have played key roles in overseeing elections, running state companies, distributing food aid and crushing opposition protests.

In a report this month, Human Rights Watch urged leaders of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, at the annual SADC summit in Sandton, South Africa on August 16 and 17, to press Zimbabwe’s leadership to address human rights issues.

It urged them to call on the government of Zimbabwe to “suspend from duty, investigate and fairly prosecute government officials, military officers, soldiers, and police officers responsible for serious violations of international human rights”.

Army sources say the army rank and file, unhappy with mounting poverty and low salaries, want Mugabe to relinquish power. Perhaps aware of this, at the Defence Forces Day event, Mugabe promised to review soldiers’ pay.

“In the face of the hyper-inflationary environment…in the country, the government continues to cushion the defence forces by awarding them regular cost of living adjustments,” he said.

“In this regard, I would like to thank the defence and security forces for remaining loyal and dedicated to the maintenance of people and tranquility of the country in these trying times.”

Norbert Gogodza is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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