THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

On the increasing prospects for armed conflict in Zimbabwe: and the importance of finding substantive ways to prevent this eventuality
John Stewart
July 19, 2005

1. A situation has developed in Zimbabwe where an irresponsible regime has so governed by monopoly and disregard of their own laws and constitution, that a massive polarization has developed, a major proportion of the population displaced internally and into exile, and an economy that used to be described as the jewel of Africa is in ruins.

The recent (May 2005 -present day) military-style clearances of urban informal economic activity and the informal or additional housing that people have created in the absence of government or other housing development, has considerably increased the anger and frustration in the vast majority of the population that survives on the margins of the diminishing and dysfunctional formal sector.

Given the blockage that exist in the political, legal, media, and social spaces, and the increasing desperation facing most people, it appears as though - all other channels for engagement seeming blocked - there is at least some degree of exploration of the option of a military challenge to the government, and at least some sense that this is being expected by the regime and steps are being taken to forestall it. Indeed, it could be said that already the Zimbabwean situation is one of armed conflict, though one in which only one party is armed.

2. Zimbabwe is a country that attained independence from colonial rule in 1980, through a process in which an armed liberation movement (comprising two major separate elements) increased the cost of isolation and the monopoly of power exercised by the then ruling regime, forcing a negotiations that led to a 'peace agreement and a transition.

3. The region of Southern Africa provides a number of other examples 'proving' that the most effective means of removing a repressive and illegitimate regime is by organizing military resistance and opposition, and setting out to overthrow the illegitimate regime by armed force. Governing parties that retain a significant pride in their military and militant armed political history include those of Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda (to not provide an exhaustive list).

4. Whether a regime is repressive and illegitimate is an exceptionally complex question, not least because of the problems associated with the normative standards that may be used for such assessment. Nonetheless, the key element of determining legitimacy of a governing process must rest on the acceptance or consent of those governed. The 'normal' operating of a broad range of institutions - legislative, judicial, executive; media, social and political space, economy, social welfare and voluntary institutions - are a sine qua non for a society to operate within the bounds of normal conflicts and social tensions.

5. However, in Zimbabwe there is

  • the closure of political space - through de facto if not de jure impendiments to the operation of any opposition, and the effective monopoly of institutions by the ruling elite, perhaps now best characterized as the relic of a former liberation movement
  • a situation where judicial institutions have been distorted by overtly partisan appointments, and quasi-legal and extralegal pressures have been applied on judicial officers of all kinds
  • the media being 'regulated' and harassed by a partisan and 'overzealous' media Commission, and the electronic media is monopolized by the ruling party through its monopoly of the state
  • an economy in freefall, with inflation in the several hundreds of %, and the GDP contracting by 10% or more per annum during the last five years, unemployment incalculable but massive, shortages of basics a regular occurrence (fuel, cooking oil, sugar, wheat flour, staple maize meal)
  • more than 30% of the population are living in exile, largely for economic and survival purposes and largely self-exiled during this last five year period
  • a necessary land reform was carried out in great haste ('fast track') from 2000 onwards, not for redistributive and production-oriented purposes, but for political capital, in an attempt to shore up waning political popularity; and has resulted in a catastrophic collapse in agricultural production, and the displacement and social dislocation of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers. Corrupt allocation of land to the ruling elite has served to replace one racially determined elite of land owners with another politically determined elite.
  • a coercive and feared security and policing apparatus, with a recently greatly expanded security service (CIO) [partly enhanced by graduates of a notorious partisan 'national youth training exercise' that produced ruling party militants or 'youth militias' between 200 and 2004], and policing and army institutions that were the targets of 'political cleansing' exercises (to remove suspected sympathizers of the 'opposition') in the period following 2000 (a process that also was carried out in the Civil Service of the State)
  • serious allegations of extensive human rights abuse, notably reported by the Mission of the African Commission on Peoples and Human Rights, a report adopted by the African Heads of Government at their Abuja meeting of January 2005, complemented by numerous other reports from Zimbabwean and international human rights organisations
  • the 'application' of urban bye laws is carried out by military and paramilitary units, so that urban traders and long term urban residents are forced at gunpoint to watch, or even to participate in, the arbitrary and non-legal destruction of their shelters and their livelihoods. It is estimated that at least 200 000 households have been displaced by force in this current (still ongoing) exercise, affecting possibly as many as a million people or around 10% of the population. Some local resistance occurred, including the firing of weapons at police units.
  • a creeping but extensive staffing of key posts by serving or nominally and recently retired military officers or people with state security experience - sectors affected include electoral machinery, fuel acquisition and distribution, grain and agricultural produce marketing, and mining, as well as the security, military, policing and telecommunications sectors
  • the very existence of systemic crisis is denied by the ruling elite, who try to assert that the catastrophic food shortages are the result of drought

6. While elections have been held with regularity, and the State has asserted its attempts to comply with recent guidelines that were developed by the Southern Africa Development Community to foster independence of electoral institutions, it is clear at the very least that broad based acceptance of the fairness of these institutions is absent, and that the fairness of (for example) the parliamentary election of March 2005 is questioned and challenged by all observers excepting known close 'friends' of the ruling party. Elections held in 2000 for parliament, and 2002 for the Presidency were equally contested; one particular feature indicating the absence of substantive process was that none of the nearly 40 challenges in court to the June 2000 parliamentary elections results was fully determined by the time of the March 2005 election!

7. Faced with the monopoly and manipulation of the vast majority of institutions and processes by the ruling party, which seems unwilling to submit itself to an independent assessment of its popularity, the search for other options seems to be occurring. At a report back meeting in the eastern city of Mutare, following the March elections, the chief whip of the opposition MDC was explaining to the crowd why the party was challenging the election results in court. From the floor, and despite the obvious presence of uniformed police and the inevitable presence of security officials, he was heckled with demands for weapons to be provided to opposition party members.

8. A number of other indicators point to the dangers of escalation towards violent conflict and war:

  • reports of an informal kind exist about the beginnings of training of exiled young people in military skills, at least in South Africa and Mozambique, and maybe other countries within the region. No political claims have been made connected wit these reports. Should there be any financing of these activities it seems likely that it will be drawn from exile circles
  • the police and judicial officers of the State in Zimbabwe are charging a number of people with having illegal training in military skills, While these prosecutions may have in the main political connotations, it indicates the perspective that the ruling elite fears and indeed expects such a response
  • recently the police announced the cancellation of all firearms licences for privately held rifles and automatic weapons, and demanded their surrender. [While it is unclear what number is involved, the author was aware that - a decade ago - about 5000 licenses for all firearms were being issued each year.]
  • the political cleansing exercise referred to above resulted in at least several hundred police and army officers being induced, persuaded or forced to leave the services. It is likely that a significant number of these people found their way into exile.
  • The top leadership of the army and police clearly is a loyal part of the ruling elite. However, there is certainly extensive discontent at lower levels of the armed forces and the police, not least because of the fact that many of them, and families of most of them, have been affected by the recent 'tsunami' blitz on informal and allegedly illegal housing and economic (trading or production) activities in the urban areas of Zimbabwe
  • the war veteran groups - essentially veterans from the liberation war that ended in 1980, but enhanced by the youth militia recruits of recent years - have also been alienated and angered by political marginalisation, and by not being exempted from targeting in the recent clearance exercises; one leader recently asserted their capability and willingness to return to war, and some reports allege that arms caches existing since the 1970s wars still exist and may be accessed by some groups of these veterans.

9. Militarily, the Zimbabwe state remains strong, with a large and well equipped defence force (with it appears new military advisers, and new equipment, from China). It is unlikely that in the short term - given the internal and the regional geopolitical situation - a serious military threat will be posed to this regime. Nonetheless, the inflexibility, authoritarian and monopolist style, and repressive and restrictive application of 'official lawlessness' makes the likelihood that further exploration of the military option will be carried out all the greater.

10. In order to prevent the gradual but accelerating escalation of the armed conflict in Zimbabwe (reiterating my starting point that armed conflict already exists) it is urgent that internal efforts by civil society ,to confront the monopoly of power, and to create genuinely open political space, be supported and strengthened; and that civil society internationally, and the international community, especially of the global south, puts increasing pressure, through ostracism and isolation, persuasion and pressures of whatever kind come to hand - through international institutions, diplomatic opportunities, media and information, boycotts of relationships especially in the military and security domains, and other creative responses including visits, high-level delegations and other possible longer-term non-violent interventions.

11. A return to outright and extensive war in Zimbabwe is a prospect too horrible to contemplate, since its consequences internally and indeed regionally in Southern Africa, and in terms of the struggles to redress and overcome the imbalances and injustice in the global economic order, will be extremely negative. It is for this reason that this appeal is being made, for an urgent and concerted global effort - led from countries and civil society of the global south - to work urgently with Zimbabwean civil society within the country and in exile communities, to attempt to prevent a return to violent conflict in that country.

John Stewart
Nonviolent Action and Strategies for Social Change

(The author works with a number of human rights and civic organizations in Zimbabwe, but this paper does not necessarily represent their views)

Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.