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By Alex T. Magaisa

TEN years ago, Professor Masipula Sithole, a great son of Zimbabwe, wrote in his famous ‘Public Eye’ column of a national weekly newspaper, about the spectre of military rule in the country.

The good man of letters is not with us anymore but his work lives after him. And so it is that today, we re-visit his thoughts on this subject which has become ever more pertinent.

At the time, Sithole argued that military rule in Zimbabwe was unlikely. He viewed the uniformed men and women as professionals who would not be used in the ‘circumstances of a political impasse’ to bolster the ‘personal ambitions’ of the politician.

Sithole felt that the overriding ‘corporate interest’ of the military would be to protect its (then) internationally recognised reputation, which would be diminished by direct involvement in politics. He argued that the ‘uniting factor in the army itself is in defence of the legal order, the Constitution’.

Sadly, we will never know what the good Professor would make of the current situation. I cannot help but think that he would have felt profoundly appalled and let down by the military. Not only has it entered the realm of politics, it has, in fact, become the centrepiece; the single most important determinant of politics in the country.

But it is not hard to understand Sithole’s thoughts at the time. The man had profound love for his country. You get the sense, when reading the two articles, of a man trying hard to dissuade the military from ever considering the spectre of military rule. He may have been a little kinder to the military, not because he totally believed they harboured no thoughts of taking power, but simply by way of cajoling them not to go down that road.

He did admit, towards the end of his second article, that his was an ‘optimistic prediction’, which he hoped Mugabe would not ‘mess up’ by failing to listen to wise counsel. Sithole thought Mugabe would eventually listen to his ‘power base’ in the military so that there would be no need for it to take over the state.

Ten years later, Mugabe has, of course, listened to this power-base. But not in the way Sithole imagined. Sithole thought Mugabe would listen to the military’s call for him to leave office and give way to others. Today, however, that power base seems to be telling him the exact opposite, that is, to remain in office.

Military intervention has occurred not because the military seeks to fill a ‘political vacuum’ in the sense that political institutions have decayed. That may have been the fear in 1998 when the economy began to sink rapidly and Zanu PF was reaching advanced stages of decay. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) did not exist. Today, however, Zimbabwe has a viable political alternative. The military is not needed; certainly not for purposes of filling a ‘political vacuum’.

Neither is it needed to sort out the mess before handing over to civilians, as military regimes often claim. They have neither the training nor the facility to undertake the task of governance. Why, then, has it intervened?

Here, we return to Sithole and pick one of the schools of thought that he helpfully summarised. He referred to Samuel Decalo, who argued that the military intervenes to safeguard specific ‘personal’ and corporate’ interests ‘on the part of individual generals or a clique of army officers’.

For most observers, this would seem to be the classic case in today’s Zimbabwe. The intervention of the military, albeit couched in nationalistic terms, is really a function of personal interests. There is concern about personal security against prosecution. In material terms, most have become so closely wedded to the state that they could not possibly make a living outside its structures.

When recently discussing with my friend, Farai, about the possibility of a military takeover, he wrote, ‘waMagaisa would you recognise a coup when you saw one? Yakatorohwa kupu kudhara! (the Coup has already happened!)’, he said, matter-of-factly. In his view, there is no point speculating whether or not the military might take over if Tsvangirai wins the June 27 election because they are already in control. When I asked if the military would withdraw if Mugabe wins, he had a simple answer, ‘ngoma ndiyo-ndiyo’. Nothing changes, he said, that’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it will remain.

If Farai is correct, this, of course, raises very significant questions for President Mbeki and his SADC colleagues.

Are they, in fact, confronted with a veiled military regime in Zimbabwe? There may not have been the drama that precedes a classic military takeover; there may not be the physical and visible presence of men in uniform declaring rule by decree. Some will argue that this makes little difference. There could be, if we might coin it, a ‘Latent Coup’ – an invisible, veiled military takeover of the state.

Whatever form it takes, the intervention of the military is neither necessary nor helpful. The uniformed forces have a specific constitutional mandate and it does not extend to governing. They do not have the equipment to govern. As the say, however, long it stays in the river a log will never become a crocodile.

There was a time, decades ago, when military regimes were common-place in Africa. This is no longer the case and most people frown upon such regimes which do nothing to further democracy. Southern Africa has been particularly averse to military rule. South Africa itself clamped down when Lesotho was threatened with military takeover in 1998. Yet, as things stand, SADC may be harbouring a member state that is about to, if it has not already crossed the proverbial Rubicon.

Professor Sithole is probably watching, alongside many illustrious sons and daughters of the soil who gave their all for a free Zimbabwe. There probably is, to hazard a guess, a profound sense of disappointment at the way events have turned in Zimbabwe.

Ten years later, Professor, the military appears to have intervened. Continue to RIP, Professor.

Alex Magaisa is based at Kent Law School, UK and can be contacted at

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