Militarisation of the Zimbabwean state: an insider’s view

The late Alex Magaisa


By Alex Magaisa

Gonzo Muduri

In all my interactions with friends and relatives both in Zimbabwe and abroad, I am often why soldiers like me during my time in service get abused by Zanu PF in their quest to remain in power. The statement “imi masoja makapusa munobvumirei kushandiswa” is quite common in these engagements.

Others have gone on to suggest that I should have been brave enough to encourage a few close soldiers to cock our guns and “do the right thing”. This speaks volumes of the resentment that the general populace has towards soldiers. To be sure, it is not an easy place being a soldier in a political environment like Zimbabwe’s. On the one hand, it’s a job and a service to the nation but on the other hand, there is abuse for political purposes.

Citizens hardly hear from those in service or those who have served. A strict set of rules and a restrictive culture in the military make it impossible for serving soldiers to speak out openly. In this way, soldiers are no different from judges for example. Everyone has something to say about them, but they have no opportunity to make their representations. It is for this reason that I took this bold step to write this article highlighting to the world the role the military plays in Zimbabwean politics so that those who examine it do so in context.


From the onset, it is important for the reader to understand the structure of the Zimbabwe army. The Zimbabwe Defence Forces is the umbrella term for the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) and the Air Force of Zimbabwe (AFZ) whose commander is General Valerio Sibanda. The Zimbabwe National Army is the branch responsible for ground operations whereas the Air Force of Zimbabwe is responsible for air operations. This sector is regulated by the Defence Act, although of course, the supreme law is the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

Under section 89 of the Constitution, the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces. This places the defences forces under civilian command. Under section 111 of the Constitution, it is the President that has the power to declare war and peace while section 110(2)(g) he or she has the power to deploy soldiers in any operations. This deployment is subject to reporting requirements and approvals by Parliament. This is designed theoretically to check and balance the powers of the President. This is how it should be, but as we witnessed in 2017, the reality can be something else when the military commanders have other ideas.


Both the ZNA and AFZ have what are called “officer” and “non-officer” soldiers. The rank that a solder holds depends on whether he is an officer or a non-officer. An officer simply means the soldier is commissioned whereas a non-officer is not commissioned. From there I would say there are 3 classes of soldiers. For convenience and ease of reference, I will call them Group A, B & C. A member of each group is drawn from both the ZNA and AFZ.


This group is made up of senior army officials. This is the elite group in military circles. In military circles, they are referred to as “maSHEFU” (the bosses). The “shefu” (boss) culture is an important feature of the social ecology of the military. It reflects the hierarchical nature of power in the command structure, but it is also a euphemism for abuse of power by superiors over subordinates. Whatever a shefu wants from the subordinate, a shefu will get. In the ZNA, maShefu are drawn from the rank of colonel, brigadier, major general, lieutenant general, warrant officers to general. In the AFZ, they are drawn from air commodore, air vice-marshal, warrant officers, air marshal and air chief marshal.

This group which consists of mostly men has a direct link with Zanu PF, the ruling party. Many of them have direct roots in the struggle for independence. They live comfortably in guarded mansions, they have drivers, and they are involved in business activities such as farming and mining. They are the biggest beneficiaries of government programs such as land redistribution and publicly-funded programs such as Command Agriculture, Bacossi, and farm mechanization. Many will recall that time in the 2000s when senior officials including judges were blessed with luxury gifts including flat-screen televisions.

They are key members who either attend or facilitate Joint Operations Command (JOC) meetings and activities. They are directly involved in ZANU PF politics and often attend secret meetings with ZANU PF senior officials. During the days leading to Robert Mugabe`s ouster, many of these meetings were held both in and outside of Zimbabwe. Unsurprisingly, a very senior member of the presidency played a critical role in facilitating some of these meetings.


This group includes major, lieutenant colonel, colonel, sergeant, squadron leader, wing commander and group captain. If the Group A soldiers are at the top of the food chain, they this group sits comfortably in the middle. They do not get the choice cuts, but they are not short of supplies either. They have the added incentive of looking forward to one day joining the elite group at the top.

Just like the elites in Group A, this crew is also highly politicised. They live comfortable lives with various luxurious packages such as cars, free housing, cars, free petrol, drivers. Like the Group A soldiers, their children attend private schools. But they have a crucial role in the military establishment as they provide a key link between Group A and C soldiers.


This group is made of ordinary soldiers mostly drawn from the ranks of private, lance corporal, sergeant corporal, second lieutenant, lieutenant, captain etc. These “foot soldiers” are the majority and have little to no access to the privileges enjoyed by the two elite groups. Since they are at the bottom of the food chain in the military hierarchy, they are suffering like ordinary Zimbabweans. For context, they are the ones you see taking ZUPCOs or sitting at the back of pickup trucks in the rain. They are the ones who live in congested barracks with single beds shave to make do with a diet of boiled cabbage and beans. They are also sent to perform hard labour for maShefu. They obey in the name of discipline. The only thing that might count as an advantage is that soldiers get paid first before the rest of government workers. But this does not change the fact that the wages are just as paltry.

They work on orders mostly through their shefus orders within their class or from Group B shefus. Although they have nothing, they are the ones that do the dirty work. They are the ones who get orders to beat up people, mount roadblocks, etc. But they have no power. They cannot refuse orders. When you join the military, one of the most important lessons that are hammered down recruits’ throats is obedience. You have to obey orders. Therefore, theirs is to follow orders and not to negotiate.

Despite their differences in terms of privileges, one common element in all three groups is the macho culture because the military is a predominantly male environment. This macho culture shows itself in different ways in the way that the institution is run and how members conduct themselves. This has an influence on attitudes towards important things such as human rights and women.


I will not dwell much on this topic because it is publicly known to the public. I will however mention key state institutions that the army has direct control over. These include the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), judiciary, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA), and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ).

It goes without saying that all these institutions are staffed with army officials. Many Zimbabweans already know of key army officials seconded to ZEC such as the late Douglas Nyikayaramba, Major Utoile Silaigwana, and Brigadier General George Chiweshe who was previously seconded to ZEC and then appointed a judge of the High Court. There are many more military officials serving as magistrates and prosecutors. However, it is important to note that a lot of administration and logistics staff members at these state institutions are seconded from the military. This has a ripple effect of instilling fear and co-option on genuine officials at these institutions who may want to perform their duties professionally and ethically.


It is important for citizens to understand that Zanu PF’s factional battles filter into the security sector. In the days leading to President Robert Mugabe’s removal, the army, police, and central intelligence organization were divided along with Zanu PF’s factions. The CIO and police were aligned to G40 whereas Mnangagwa’s Lacoste was backed by the army. It is for this reason that in 2017 the army ran amok and mercilessly attacked members of the police in broad daylight. It is not a coincidence that when tankers were deployed in the streets of Harare and major cities, the first buildings to be captured and cordoned off by the army included the Zimbabwe Republic Police`s armoury. This was done to immobilize the police whose leadership was perceived to back G40.

Although these events may have excited many Zimbabweans, they were simply a war between Zanu PF’s Lacoste and G40 factions in which the military chose a side. The immobilization of the police during that period excited many people because for their part the police were causing many problems and inconveniences to the public through their roadblocks which became centres of corruption. However, the soldiers’ actions were not driven by a sense of service to the public but they were motivated by the political fights that were taking place in ZANU PF.


It is not a secret that in many civilized countries, the army’s mandate is to defend the country from external threats. Due to Zimbabwe being a peaceful country that is not at war with anyone, the role of the army has been diverted to protect the interest of ZANU PF and to help the party remain in power. A notable example is the Command Agriculture program. The army has been involved in coordinating all command agriculture activities, something that ideally should be done by civilian administrators, not soldiers. Consequently, it is not surprising that senior army officials are the biggest beneficiaries of the Command Agriculture program. It is also not surprising that a senior army officer would head the Command Agriculture program when there is a whole ministry of Agriculture in Zimbabwe.

What has happened is that the army officials from the most senior officer to the most junior army officer have misconstrued their role. Many have given themselves the power they do not have constitutionally. It is for this reason that a junior army official can simply beat up people at a growth point like Mahusekwa or Mupandawana for no apparent reason. He can act with such impunity because he knows there are no consequences. The reluctance to act after the Motlanthe Commission report gave a further signal that soldiers can do as they please without any consequence. The police fear the army and often a police officer will not arrest an unruly soldier.


As it stands, it is near impossible to be promoted on merit in the army. Nepotism and political affiliation have become the order of the day. Many bootlick simply to please their masters who got them a job in the army. One senior general is notorious for nepotism, helping to recruit into the army thousands of young unemployed boys from his village and surrounding areas. Some were herd boys whose highest education was as low as grade 1. Most of the uneducated youths from that area who got into the army through Chiwenga cannot read or write. Unfortunately, these young men become beholden to their godfathers and end up committing heinous acts based on obeying commands.

In this vein, the ZANU PF government adopted a model of oversupplying soldiers. It is inconceivable that for a country of 15 million people that is not at war, there are tens of thousands of soldiers most of whom cannot even be accommodated in military barracks. This oversupply is purely political and has nothing to do with maintaining peace in the country. This is the reason why it is easy to mobilize soldiers to beat up opposition party supporters – they have nothing else to do and some relish the opportunity to dish out violence which they should be directing to the enemy. It is also why you see soldiers everywhere, including at bus stations and roadblocks. That is not the role of the military in a country that is not at war. But there are too many of them and they have nothing to do so they end up being deployed in areas where they should not be at all.


In writing this article, this part is the most painful and emotional one for me. What is most painful is that after my military training at Llewellin Barracks, my first assignment was to be deployed deep in the rural areas to beat up Morgan Tsvangirai’s supporters. This operation was led by ZANU PF and identified known Tsvangirai’s supporters. I can speak with authority that the killers of Mathew Pfebve [an MDC cadre] were coordinated by the military, working together with ZANU PF. I have first-hand knowledge of how MDC supporters were tortured and killed across the country. I am not at liberty to give actual location details for fear of being tracked.

But I live with haunting memories of Tsvangirai’s supporters that were killed in broad daylight. I know some by their names, but I also do not know some by their names as they were identified by ZANU members during this operation. For some that we tortured, I am not sure if they survived or vakaita kafira mberi (we left them with life-threatening injuries, and they may have died later). I can only hope that they survived. I have many tales of how the army is also actively involved in the actual running of elections from logistics to the coordination of every election aspect, most notably the 2008 and 2018 elections.

Why do you take part in these murderous activities Gonzo, some of you have asked?

I answer this question by saying that one needs to understand the dynamics of the army. The army is a formal and hierarchical institution sustained by orders passed down a defined chain of command. There is no soldier who deploys himself to go beat up opposition supporters. Solders get deployed to perform a specific mission. As I stated earlier, following the instructions and orders of your superiors is the most basic rule of military life. The rationale behind this is that following orders teaches obedience and enhances the successful and correct completion of the assigned task. If you allow juniors to question orders, it leads to serious problems in running the military, so the thinking goes.

Unfortunately, this otherwise key rule which is used by many militaries across the world is abused as the bulk of these commands and missions are political in nature. Failure to obey orders is a serious offense of insubordination which has serious repercussions for the alleged offender. In a Zimbabwean setup where the army is politicized, this can easily lead to torture or death. The other alternative, a measure of last resort is for the soldier to desert the army, and many have deserted over the years. But when you desert you must leave the country and never return because the punishment meted out upon capture is something that you could never wish upon your worst enemy.

What’s next for Zimbabwe?

Former leader, President Robert Mugabe set a bad precedent by involving the army in the body politic. The involvement of the army is very much entrenched everywhere and, in my view, it will take time and political leadership, and great skill to dismantle. I leave that to political scientists to decide how that dismantling might happen. What I do know is that the bulk of soldiers especially in group C are suffering like everyone else and they are also desperate for change. I believe when ZANU PF is one day defeated, all soldiers (groups A, B and C) must be retrained to understand their constitutional mandate. It is not to support the ruling party of the day whatever it might be but to defend the country. Many soldiers are not aware that the mandate of the Zimbabwe Défense Forces is to provide combat-ready forces to defend the country from external forces. I for one have hope that the day will come when soldiers serve the people of Zimbabwe and not a specific political party. I don’t know when that might be, but I remain hopeful.

With God`s grace, I hope to write more of my experience in the army.


Gonzo Muduri

Gonzo Muduri has had extensive experience in the ZDF. For confidentiality, Gonzo Muduri has used a pseudonym. You can however follow him on the Twitter handle: @Gonzomuduri


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