By Blessing-Miles Tendi
“When I was there, the Zimbabwean army was good. They were disciplined. There was no hint of the army being political. I wrote regular reports for the UK government and do not recall ever writing anything particularly negative about the Zimbabwean army. I do not understand how the Zimbabwean army just changed. We especially liked Philip Sibanda [current commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces]. He was very professional, not political at all, and had been to the British Army’s Staff College.”
These are the disenchanted reflections of Major General Garry Barnett, commander of the British Military Advisory Training Team in Zimbabwe from 1991 to 1993. Barnett made these comments in 2013, when I interviewed him about former Zimbabwean army commander Solomon Mujuru (nom de guerre, Rex Nhongo), the subject of my recently published biography. Barnett felt let down by some members of the Zimbabwean army because of their increasingly political conduct.
For example, when former president Robert Mugabe lost the first round of the 2008 presidential election to Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwean army generals stepped in to support Mugabe’s re-election bid through a campaign of political violence. Today, the Zimbabwean army looks even less like the force Barnett helped to professionalise. In 2017, the army staged a coup d’état that removed Mugabe from power. Sibanda, once regarded as an apolitical and professional soldier, was one of the key players in effecting the coup.
The British Military Advisory Training Team (BMatt) began integrating, training and professionalising Zimbabwe’s two liberation armies (Zipra and Zanla) and the colonial army in 1980. A year later, Nhongo, a hero of Zimbabwe’s liberation war, became the first black commander of independent Zimbabwe’s national army. Nhongo is the Zimbabwean general who supported BMatt’s work the most. Nhongo “let me just get on with my work. He wanted a more professional army. He would ask how things were going at the Staff College. He was very interested in building up highly capable officers,” Barnett remembers.
After the construction of the Zimbabwean army’s Staff College in 1985 Nhongo insisted, against the preferences of the then minister of defence, that the BMatt commander (1985 to 1987) Major General Bob Hodges become the inaugural commandant because he believed the professional Hodges would instil a high standard in the Zimbabwe National Army officer corps.
After Hodges left Zimbabwe, Nhongo continued his practice of appointing professional BMMatt commanders as commandants of the Staff College. Only at the close of the 1980s did Nhongo finally overturn this tradition by appointing Sibanda, then a professional soldier, as the first Zimbabwean commandant of the Staff College. When Nhongo retired in 1992, the Zimbabwean army had attained a high degree of conventional training, education, discipline and fighting effectiveness. It was the second-best conventional combat force in Southern Africa, only because the South African army was better resourced.
However, towards the end of the 1990s, Zimbabwe staged a military intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Zimbabwe was embroiled in the DRC war for years, at great cost to the national economy. The Zimbabwean army incurred considerable losses in military hardware, some of which was never replaced. The DRC war was a watershed moment in the decline of the Zimbabwean army’s operational capacity. Moreover, a United Nations panel of experts released a report on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the DRC, in which it identified some top Zimbabwean army officers as being involved in the looting of Congolese natural resources, further undermining the army’s professional ethos. The retired Nhongo advised Mugabe against involving the Zimbabwean army in the DRC war but by the late 1990s, he had lost his influence with the president.
The rise of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as a potent challenge, from 1999 onwards, to the governing Zanu-PF party’s incumbency saw Mugabe increasingly politicise the army to protect his rule. Army officers had agency in this politicisation process. For instance, many soldiers with experience in the 1970s liberation war believed they were duty-bound to offer political support to Zanu-PF, the party of independence.
Others subscribed to politicisation in exchange for patronage, with many commanders benefiting from land reform, alluvial diamond mining in eastern Zimbabwe and the government’s command agriculture scheme. When the 2017 coup occurred, some of these beneficiaries in the army were motivated by the need to shield themselves from possible prosecution for corrupt commercial activities.
Unlike his successors in the army, Nhongo never sought political leadership when he was a serving army general. Nhongo saw himself essentially as a soldier and believed that his limited education and speech impediment made him unsuited for high political office. He had none of the hubris that incited politically ambitious soldiers to stage coups d’état in a range of independent African countries — Zimbabwe included.
Consequently, this is an opportune time for my biography of Nhongo to be published, as Zimbabwe contends with the reality that its army set a coup precedent in 2017. At the same time, the prospect of additional coups and civil strife lingers because of worsening socioeconomic conditions and the ruling civilian-military coalition government’s poor performance.
Nhongo appears to his successors in the army as a looking glass. His successors need to recover the professional ethos Nhongo tried to forge in the national army’s formative years. They need to relearn the first commandment of a professional army’s training — that the army does not act against its own government. After retirement, Nhongo entered active politics as an MP until 2000.
During his time in Parliament, Nhongo stood against partisanship and its accompanying enmity politics. The coming together of deeply partisan Zimbabwean politicians to mourn Nhongo when he died in a suspicious fire in 2011, underlined that he had been above partisanship. With Zimbabwe in crisis once again and solutions in short supply, the moment calls for nonpartisanship and a meeting of progressive minds to chart a way out of the present crisis.
Blessing-Miles Tendi is an associate professor of African politics at Oxford University and the author of The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker (Cambridge University Press)