Military Leaders Making the Decisions in Zimbabwe

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, April 15 -- Zimbabwe's military has taken day-to-day control of key elements of the national government, limiting the authority of President Robert Mugabe as he struggles to maintain power after 28 years, according to senior government sources, Western diplomats and analysts.

Mugabe's clout has diminished as military forces deploy widely across Zimbabwe's countryside and in government agencies. Among those agencies is the electoral commission, which has refused to release results from the March 29 election and would manage a runoff vote, if one is eventually scheduled.

National decision-making increasingly has been consolidated within the Joint Operations Command, a shadowy group consisting of the leaders of the army, air force, police, intelligence agency and prison service -- a group Zimbabweans call the "securocrats."

Although those officials long have been powerful, their authority in government and political matters grew sharply in the days after the election, when it became clear that Mugabe had lost a first round of balloting to longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Several of the securocrats, whose ties to Mugabe date to Zimbabwe's liberation war in the 1970s, had vowed before the vote never to take orders from Tsvangirai, a former trade union official with no military background.

The shift in power is "an interim measure that is meant to stabilize the country at this critical moment," said a top government official and Mugabe confidant, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The arrangement is just temporary because once he wins [a runoff vote], as the army expects him to, he will be back in charge."

Zimbabwe's political crisis has shown no sign of abating since the election 17 days ago. All sides agree that Mugabe received fewer votes than Tsvangirai, but they disagree as to whether the opposition candidate won the clear majority needed for a decisive first-round victory.

The opposition party, which asserts that Tsvangirai did win enough votes to become president, has tried various tactics to push Mugabe's government from office. It sued unsuccessfully to force release of the results. It embraced a runoff, announced a boycott of it, then reversed again and said it would take part under certain conditions. On Tuesday, it called a general strike only to see it fizzle.

Regional diplomatic efforts, including quiet negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition, have failed so far. There are no official presidential election results, no date for a runoff and no clear path for resolving the crisis. That has made questions about who is in charge now all the more pressing. The constitutional mandate for parliament and Mugabe's cabinet expired at the end of March.

Opposition leaders have claimed for several days that the military has quietly taken control of the government. "It's a coup in the guise of an election," said opposition lawmaker David Coltart, who is part of a breakaway faction that does not answer to Tsvangirai.

Mugabe's security minister, Didymus Mutasa, disputed Coltart's description, saying, "President Mugabe is still in charge, and that is a fact. Those people who are telling you that are wishing for bad things for this country. Wait until the runoff. We will beat them overwhelmingly, and then they will shut up."

Yet a Zimbabwean general, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described a meeting between top military officers and Mugabe last week in Murombedzi, about 55 miles southwest of Harare, the capital. After declaring to the president that they were in charge, the officers laid out a plan by which he would contest a runoff vote in conditions made far more favorable by military control of polling stations and central counting centers, the general said.

He added that the military has assigned two senior officers to oversee each of Zimbabwe's dozens of local government districts. Their job, the general said, is to coordinate political violence by ruling party groups that are intimidating and attacking opposition supporters.

Two people have died since the election. Dozens of others have been beaten, whipped and threatened by ruling party youth militias, opposition activists say. Veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war have occupied many of the remaining white-owned commercial farms. As police checkpoints on Zimbabwe's highways have proliferated, a growing number are monitored by military policemen or officers of Mugabe's secret police.

Such harsh tactics were common in previous elections, especially in 2000 and 2002; this year's vote was generally regarded as less violent. The following day, results were posted at individual polling stations, which allowed both the opposition and independent monitors to compile tallies showing the extent of Mugabe's loss.

This more relaxed atmosphere, which resulted largely from pressure applied by leaders of other countries of southern Africa, changed in the days after the election. Through increasingly belligerent statements, ruling party figures vowed to defeat Tsvangirai in a runoff and challenged the results of several parliamentary seats they lost.

Seven election officials were arrested, as were several journalists covering the election amid intensive restrictions on news gathering.

This crackdown has come since the Joint Operations Command took operational control of the ruling party's political strategy and the country's electoral mechanisms and internal security measures, the senior government sources, diplomats and analysts said. The pretext, they said, is a national security threat posed by a possible victory by Tsvangirai, whom officials long have accused of colluding with Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler, Britain, to help it reassert control.

Former Mugabe information minister Jonathan Moyo, who broke with the president and now is an independent lawmaker, said that when he was in the cabinet from 2000 to 2005, major decisions needed the approval of the securocrats, much as a company's chief executive officer submits major initiatives to a board of directors.

Since the vote, Moyo said, power has shifted from Mugabe, whom he called "a hostage president."

"His role is as a weakened CEO," Moyo said. "Still CEO, but one who cannot disagree with his boss."

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