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Soldiers Quitting in Droves

Army faces mass resignations and desertions as discontent over pay and conditions grows.
By Obert Zizousiku
At the entrance to an army camp in Harare's southwestern township of Dzivarasekwa is a small notice with pictures of about 20 soldiers, and the names of fifteen others, who are wanted for deserting the army.

The posters appeal to fellow soldiers and the public to either arrest the deserters or inform the army of their whereabouts.

Such posters found at army camps countrywide indicate a growing trend in the army where personnel

are going AWOL.

It is emblematic of the discontent in the security forces - ironically the people on whom the regime of President Robert Mugabe, the commander in chief of the army, has relied over the years to repress dissenting voices in the country.

Zimbabwe's soldiers are quitting in their hundreds at the end of three and seven-year contracts because of poor pay and working conditions, a development that could pose a security threat to the crisis-weakened southern African country. Many others whose contracts have not expired are simply deserting.

The country's intensifying economic crisis has begun to erode the morale of the army, which among state agencies close to Mugabe is second only to the much-feared spy agency, the Central intelligence Organisation, CIO.

Emotions are running high among the soldiers - numbering around 40,000, down from 82,000 in the late 1990s - who now believe they are being sidelined by Mugabe, despite having been the key instrument in sustaining his regime.

The resignations and desertions are mostly among the ranks of young privates and non-commissioned officers.

The surest sign that all is not well are the resignations from the elite Presidential Guard - which protects the head of state and his two deputies - accompanying Mugabe and his entourage everywhere they travel.

Andrew Masango, not his real name, who finished training in Bulawayo two years ago and was immediately posted to the Presidential Guard, told IWPR he plans to quit because of poor pay and conditions. "It's not worth it. We toil every day for nothing," said the 23-year-old. Even though it’s an elite unit, Masango said the benefits from serving in it were no greater than elsewhere in the armed forces.

Masongo has a wife and child who live in his rural home. "They used to live with me in Harare but I sent them to the rural areas because I could not afford to pay the city rents," he said. "Now I stay at the barracks where the conditions are terrible."

Soldiers who stay in the barracks, even those in the extensive grounds of Mugabe's palatial presidential mansion, complain that the quality of their food has deteriorated over the years.

"I stand at the gates at State House guarding for hours on end on a virtually empty stomach," said Masondo. "Breakfast is only two thin slices of bread and a cup of tea."

A private soldier in the army earns eight million Zimbabwe dollars a month (about 80 US dollars) – putting him well below the poverty line for the country.

For the government the army provides ready employment for ZANU PF youths who would otherwise have been recruited into National Youth Service camps where they are pumped with anti-opposition propaganda and pro-ZANU PF patriotic messages, before being serving in militias deployed to village areas to support ruling party officials.

A soldier, who asked to be known only as Thomas, came through the youth camps into the army. He said that for all the lessons on patriotism he attended, he can hardly bear the life the he is living as a soldier.

After six months of training at Mushagashi camp, near the southern town of Masvingo, Thomas was posted to Nyanga in the Eastern Highlands where he received basic military training.

"My life is still miserable despite the fact that I protect the president of the country," Thomas told IWPR. "I cannot even afford to visit my mum in Magunje [near Lake Kariba in northern Zimbabwe]."

A report released by a parliamentary defence committee two years ago gave advance warning of the deteriorating conditions in the army.

The report said most barracks in the country had massive shortages of food and uniforms. It also noted the harmful effects of poor pay on morale.

Former army major Giles Mtsekwa, shadow minister of defence in parliament for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, said the desertions and resignations point to massive discontent. "It's a dangerous situation but Mugabe does not realise it," said Mtsekwa. "The soldiers are leaving because they are poorly paid. We have warned about this for years."

He said the problem is made worse by the fact that while Mugabe underpays the lower ranks he takes very good care of his generals.

"The generals have been allocated farms [confiscated from white commercial farmers] which are protected by low-paid foot soldiers," said Mtsekwa. "They [the generals]are very well paid and have access to army vehicles for personal use at the farms.

"Mugabe is using divide and rule tactics even in the army. While the young boys in the lower ranks are living like paupers, the generals are well catered for. Mugabe's strategy has always been to take care of the top men who are key to his continued stay in the power. This ensures that discontent among the rank and file is easily dealt with.”

ZANU PF parliamentary deputy and retired colonel Claudius Makova told IWPR that the desertions were "nothing to worry about because most of the army people are still loyal". Makova, who chairs parliament’s defence committee, said the

army is stable because most senior personnel are veterans of the 1970s war of liberation against white minority rule "who love their country".

However, sources in the army said Makova is underplaying the enormity of the growing crisis in order to please Mugabe, who is palpably predisposed to flattery from his closest advisers. "If the army is hungry like it is now, it's a potential security risk," one former army major told IWPR.

Some troops have been confined to barracks and are facing court-martials after staging protests about food shortages.

An army spokesperson recently confirmed to a national newspaper that soldiers are resigning, but denied that there has been an increase in the rate. "The position is that if you are not happy, you are allowed to leave. There is nothing new in that as it is has been happening since 1980," he said.

But in late March the government admitted the scale of the crisis by issuing a new order banning soldiers and policemen from quitting their services until they have served a minimum of ten years. Sources in the discharge sections of both services said a combined total of 3,000 troops and police officers had quit since January.

Obert Zizousiku is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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