A THOUGHTFUL reader wrote to me recently. To safeguard his confidence, he shall remain nameless.
The content and tone of his message suggested a source of wisdom and experience. He wasn’t prescribing, merely posing points to provoke thought. He reminded me of the elders I met in the village during my formative years. I thought it best to share the thoughts on this our platform.
He said to me, “waMagaisa, you express concern and great doubt over the ability of a constitution to constrain the behaviour of politicians and in particular the men in uniform (i.e. military). But have you ever asked where this behaviour and its apparent supremacy emanate from? Is it just greed or is there something more to it that we should explore?”
“Your answer”, he suggested, “probably lies in the history of the country (Zimbabwe). To understand the origins of this behaviour you have to read and learn more about the history of the struggle that led to the birth of Zimbabwe.”
I thought this was an intriguing comment.
“And remember”, he added, “the struggle was both a military and political struggle, led essentially by the same men and women who went on to become the leaders of the country after independence.”
I thought this was a challenge, a useful one it appeared, given that the country is presently engaged in the difficult and sensitive process of crafting a new Constitution.
I have always been a keen student of history. It was my most favoured module in high school. Sadly, the curriculum was crafted in such a way that Zimbabwean history was very limited or contrived.
Now nearing the mid-point of my third decade in this world (I celebrate my birthday this week), I am especially keen to learn more about the dynamics of the liberation struggle, a story that I think is yet to be fully told.
I have from time to time, purchased and read various books on the history of Zimbabwe. At the moment, I’m completing Fay Chung’s memoirs of the struggle – good read, so far. I like to learn this history to see if we can find some clues to the difficult questions that we face as a nation.
One recurring issue, alluded to by my reader, is the alleged politicisation of the military or its corollary, the militarisation of politics. It is a very dominant feature in our present-day politics but as my reader asked, how did it come about and what are its implications on the future of the country?
A lot of historians have written about this issue; about the relationship between the military and civilian political leaders. But much of this work is contained in big academic texts and journals which are not easily accessible to ordinary readers
I am a firm believer in bringing knowledge to the ordinary people. I don’t like it to be kept in the libraries. I think we should do more and more to communicate with the ordinary people. It is my motivation for my extra work in the media.
So this here is my humble attempt to hopefully bring these thoughts closer to the mass market. It is too ambitious I know, and my academic colleagues will probably chide me for it because in trying to simplify, there is the ever-present risk of over-simplification! I therefore raise my hands before they shoot.
Anyhow, my observations from the literature lead me to the conclusion that the phenomenon of politicisation of the military or the militarisation of politics has very strong historical roots and is by no means a recent phenomenon. It is a legacy of the liberation struggle of the 1960s and 70s.
ZANU and ZAPU, the two main parties fighting for independence were not just political organisations. They were quasi-military outfits as well, which operated through their armed wings, ZANLA and ZIPRA respectively. Both political parties had intrinsic military attributes which they were never able to shake off after independence.
The guerrilla forces – ZANLA and ZIPRA – were by character, not conventional armies. The nature of the struggle meant that they were highly politicised. The military men were both soldiers and politicians whist the civilian political leaders also wore military hats. The ordinary guerrillas were given both military training and political education. This was because they had worked out that the war could not be waged and won by means of arms alone – they had to politicise the peasantry so that following Mao’s principles, they could be among the people as fish were in water.
The guerrillas also carried out recruitment exercises and in so doing worked with and on behalf of the political arms of their organisations. (It is hardly surprising that the war veterans have continued with this role post-independence. It’s perfectly legitimate as far as they are concerned).
Thus the distinction between the military and the political has always been blurred. And, when the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) was formed at independence in 1980, it inherited highly politicised soldiers. Their interest and involvement in politics were some of the exigencies of the liberation struggle. The military men still felt they had a legitimate role in politics, the constitution notwithstanding. They always had a role and that was not about to change overnight.
In fact, in their friction with the political leaders, the military had in some cases managed to play ‘Godfather’ in politics – removing and replacing political leaders. One case in point is the famous Mgagao Declaration of October 1975 made by young ZANLA commanders, severely criticising and effectively ousting Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole as leader of ZANU. They named Robert Mugabe as the new leader. Here, we see quite plainly a group of military men determining the leadership of the political party.
It was also during this period that we see top military commanders taking roles in the supreme decision-making bodies of the political parties, e.g. the Politburo. This symbolised the military’s interest and stake in political decision-making process. Nothing much has changed from those days.
Why, you may ask, does this matter in present-day politics?
It matters because it gives us a facility to understand better (not necessarily to accept) why things are the way they are; why, for example, the military leaders have been a critical, if shadowy player on the political landscape. It did not begin in the year 2000; not even in 1980 – it goes back a long way.
We are able to understand the symbiosis between the political and the military leaders; in particular, the heavy influence that the military have on the politics – it is a tradition, not a fleeting circumstance.
It matters too, because in trying to craft a new Constitution, we have to grapple with this question: How can the division between the military and political be made real and effective? Is it possible at all to achieve that distinction?
We must recall that it’s not that the current constitution fails to make that distinction. It does and in many ways is not different from most of the progressive constitutions in other countries.
The constitution prohibits top military officers from active party politics. Yet despite the clear clauses, which would work well in a more professional setting, it would seem to me rather naïve to think that the military leaders can be anything but political players.
My reader asked further, “The question that you youngsters must try to answer is whether a Constitution can make these military men-cum-politicians into something that they are not or whether the Constitution should be crafted in such a way that it recognises these realities and deals with them accordingly?”
I do not claim to know the answer to this question.
But it has caused me to think more deeply about the politics of constitution-making; that in trying to create the new we have to take cognisance of history. It gives us an insight into the genesis of some of the issues that we now seek to deal with.
I have highlighted these historical roots of politicisation in order to better illuminate the nature of what others refer to as a problem in our politics. It is not a criticism of anyone but simply an exposition of the circumstances that have led us to this station.
Sadly, we are still grappling with issues of process, as opposed to issues of substance in terms of constitution-making. It would be sad if we created a new constitution which would suffer the same fate as the present one, simply because we have not learned from our past.
The worst case scenario is that this is a generational problem, one that is likely to haunt us until that generation of the war – the one that draws no distinction between the military and the political – has seen its final days. We are all, perhaps, still paying the price of independence.
Alex Magaisa is based at, Kent Law School, the University of Kent and can be contacted on e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org