The show of force by Zimbabwe’s military this election is about their own power, not politics

Military might.
Military might.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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Harare, Zimbabwe

The generals’ names may not be on the ballot, but it’s becoming clear that the military already holds the power in Zimbabwe.

Days after the historic July 30 election on, the country is on a knife’s edge, with the military making its presence known. As the first results trickled on Wednesday, Aug. 1 in pointing toward a parliamentary victory for the ruling Zanu-PF, supporters of MDC-Alliance, the main opposition party, challenged the electoral commission.

Zimbabwe election: Military intervention, protests leave three dead
Caught in the crossfire.
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings

A march to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission turned into riots, showing how fragile peace is in the country. Protesters destroyed property, torched vehilcles, blocked roads and attacked other civilians. Police controlled the situation with water cannons, but then the military intervened, firing live rounds and beating civilians, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Fourm. Three people were killed.

“I joined these people to demostrate over the unfairness of these elections and as we were protesting I saw armed soldiers coming opening fire on us,” said Shernis Mapaura, a university student who managed to escape unhurt.

The opposition will likely be blamed for its role in escalating tensions. Movement for Democratic Change presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa repeatedly declared victory, against electoral rule, and had no clear evidence of the vote rigging of which he has accused Zanu-PF.

But the military response will also be seen as heavy-handed. Reminiscent of the Mugabe-era, the state invoked the Public Order and Security Act, clearing the city center. Many businesses in downtown Harare remain closed, military personnel have reportedly chased away anyone in the city. Worryingly, some army officers masked their faces. The current chaos undermines president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s efforts to rebrand the country.

Zimbabwe election: Military intervention, protests leave three dead
Heavy handed
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings

“It matters little whether this heavy-handed response came on Mnangagwa’s orders: evidence that the president lacks the authority to control the security forces will be just as damning in terms of the impact on Zimbabwe’s international rehabilitation,” says Christopher McKee, a risk analyst with the US-based PRS Group.

The unwillingness to declare former president Robert Mugabe’s removal a coup now seems like a tacit endorsement of the military’s power. The military in Zimbabwe has a history of violence and a lack of accountability. No soldier has ever been held accountable for the military’s role in the Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s and it took a decade to acknowledge the military’s role in violent response to the 1998 food riots.

The military’s role in politics was on full display in the violence of the 2008 election, effectively keeping Mugabe in power. Subsequent elections have seen a heavy military presence, bringing a tension to a civic process.

Zimbabwe election: Military intervention, protests leave three dead
On patrol.
Image: AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

“People are not supposed to be scurrying away when they see the military, which is what we are seeing now,” Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights’ Lizwe Jamela said.

Mnangagwa administration has yet to prove that it can rule without the backing of military might, the Human Rights Forum, a collection of groups, said in a televised briefing.

“Yesterday’s events leave ordinary citizens with doubts about whether this government is any different from its predecessor, if not worse,” said human rights activist Jestina Mukoko

Chutel reported from Johannesburg.