GOVERNMENT has covertly deployed the military and other security forces to surround the protests-wrecked capital Harare, while unleashing a crack unit to operate under cover to crackdown on the opposition and civil society groups stepping up pressure for President Robert Mugabe to reform or quit.
By Bernard Mpofu /Elias Mambo
This comes after Mugabe last week threatened to quell the current wave of demonstrations and riots rocking the country’s structure-induced stability, saying: “They are thinking that what happened in the Arab Spring is going to happen in this country, but we tell them that it is not going to happen here.”
The Zimbabwe Independent understands nine lieutenant-colonels and 65 majors have from the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) and other senior Zimbabwe Defence Forces officers have been deployed under the cover of command agriculture, with some manoeuvring into strategic positions around Harare — behind the scenes — to position themselves to swiftly move and quash any revolt as political discontent and social unrest grow.
A crack unit, which comprises the army, police and intelligence agents, has reportedly also been unleashed in various provinces and areas to monitor, infiltrate and hunt down firebrands rallying a revolt against Mugabe’s regime.
“Harare and other major cities are technically surrounded at the moment in anticipation of an uprising and to pre-empt any such revolt. The stakes are high for the Mugabe and senior military commanders who have a lot to lose if government is overthrown through a popular uprising,” a military source said.
“Currently Zimbabwean security services have a powerful presence throughout the government, bureaucracy and the economy. Senior military, police and intelligence officers — who are mainly war veterans — dominate the Joint Operations Command, which has sweeping powers and authorities to oversee government operations and initiate projects outside the bounds of normal security activities, such as mining, farming and food distribution. They have vested political and business interests, hence a nexus within the triumvirate of politicians, businesspeople and military commanders.”
At the highest levels, the military has been indispensable in maintaining Mugabe and Zanu PF in power. So the deployment of the army is seen as the last resort after police have been struggling to contain the spreading protests, from the Beitbridge riots in July to Harare’s almost daily demonstrations now increasingly becoming confrontational and sometimes violent, especially when police use brutality to stop them.
The crack team is said to have caused alarm within the government and military ranks as its orders include crushing the protestors and destroying their infrastructure.
“There is a crack unit which has been trained and deployed, including on Monday this week. It concludes the police, army and other security forces,” a source said. “Some of its members went out on Monday and there concerns that this covert operation might be used to harass, threaten, and arbitrarily hunt down people pushing for Mugabe to go, including rights defenders, dissenters, activists, and opposition protestors. There is a great deal of discomfort with the military manoeuvres and deployments, especially undercover operations.”
Zimbabwe’s military has previous intervened in civilian affairs, leaving a trailing of human rights abuses and killings, including the Gukurahundi massacres.
“Some deployed operators under the crack unit have told their parents that they were scared about the instructions they had been given and if they had a choice they would not be involved in sinister activities,” a government source said. “Government, through the Ministry of Defence and parliament, needs to explain what is going on. These kinds of things led to horrific atrocities in the past and we should never ever again allow the military to casually be involved in civilian affairs, especially if the police are there. Only limited military involvement should be allowed when the police are overwhelmed.”
Contacted for comment, Defence secretary Martin Rushwaya referred questions to the Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi who could not be reached by phone to deal with the issue. Questions sent tothe minister’s mobile phone were not replied to despite being delivered and indications they had been read.
Efforts to get a comment from ZNA spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Alphios Makotore were unsuccessful he was unreachable on mobile phone. Officers in the ZNA public relations department said Makotore will only be available today.
Police spokesperson Charity Charamba said she was not aware of the deployment of a crack team. “I don’t know about it. I am not an operations person, but if I were in my office I could have found out for you,” she said.
Military sources this week said the deployment of the crack team was a result of the failure by police to contain protestors. Riots were initially sparked by an import ban of South African goods which some people survive on.
Riots broke at Beitbridge Border Post on July 1 with police failing to combat the demonstrators. This led to all the police officers being transferred after the Police Internal Security Intelligenceat the border town complained the police officers had ignored their early warning calls on the riots.
Sources said in addition to the crack team at least nine lieutenant-colonels and 65 majors were deployed across the country under the cover of the US$500 million Stalinist-style command agriculture project which seeks to produce two million metric tonnes of maize a year on 400 000 hectares of land using 2 000 farmers.
Sources said the deployment’s real intention is to ensure that the officers gather information and thwart protests while preparing for the 2018 elections. The army has helped out Mugabe in previous elections, mainly since 2000. In April, Mugabe for the first time publicly admitted this while addressing a war veterans in Harare.
As reported by the Independent last week, soldiers were also on high alert and reportedly assaulted civilians when an alliance of opposition parties tried to stage a demonstration demaning electoral reforms. The protest march postponed to today last week was yesterday stopped through a statutory instrument.
Last week was the first time since the 1998 food riots — in which 10 people reportedly died — that government has unleashed the military to quell protests.
Out of the senior officers deployed to the 10 provinces under the command agriculture guise, 71 are understood to be war veterans deemed loyal to Mugabe, sources said.
“While there is a clique of those close and loyal to Mugabe, most military officers are deemed to be loyal to the military institution, not to any one person,” a military source said. “This small group, which is well looked after, is the one energetically behind the current military deployments and manoeuvres.
“But not everyone is happy with this. Some feel it is unprofessional to use the military to suppress peaceful protests and dissent. Middle-level officers going down to rank-and-file military are not happy with their working conditions and politicisation of the army.
“Huge salary disparities in army structures has also been a source of disgruntlement. As it stands while war veterans are in the top echelons of the military structure, nearly 80% of the force is comprised of men and women who joined after independence, but who are not well looked after.”
Last week, Mugabe warned an Arab Spring-style uprising would be crushed.
“They are burning tyres in the streets to get into power. They are thinking that what happened in the Arab Spring is going to happen in this country, but we tell them that is not going to happen here,” Mugabe said. “What politics is that when you burn tyres? We want peace in the country.”
This week Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba warned opposition protesters had “crossed the line”. “Let everyone be warned — opposition or wherever — that the government will not tolerate this anymore,” Charamba said. – ZimInd