The curious case of the ‘political’ General

Soldiers with political ambitions must not be ignored; otherwise they might have the last laugh in our chaotic country.


The question is: does General Constantine Chiwenga want to be a politician? If so, which party will he represent and how will he build the support that he needs in order to rule the country, given the fact that he is a soldier rather than a politician? If he is not aiming to be involved in politics then will he manage to salute another boss other than President Robert Mugabe? More importantly, could a new president work with Chiwenga given his chequered history?

The General has a big name and a very recognisable presence. To many Zimbabweans, Chiwenga is a mysterious figure. We cannot tell whether he is a professional soldier and therefore works for us (the people) or a politician who works for Zanu (PF).

The hidden hand

His colleagues in the army describe him as a political general rather than a professional soldier. This comment highlights his shortcomings as a leader of soldiers. People are familiar with comments attributed to him where he supposedly said that ‘only those who fought in the liberation war can rule’ – a comment which suggests that he considers himself an overlord with authority to override decisions the people make. Could the General be the hidden hand and the power behind the throne?

Rumours about the General’s aspirations for the highest office in the land should be taken seriously. Contrary to some reports, former soldiers can actually run for political office. The catch is that they have to take off their camouflage and become civilians. Without support among civilians, it is unlikely that the General would be prepared to give up his military power – there is a risk that he will be left with no power at all.

Former soldiers running for political office can be good for the country because most of them are very educated, well disciplined and well trained. The typical path that former soldiers take in their bid for presidency is to gather political capital by starting low and running for parliament, and then build their popularity gradually. They then need to rise through party ranks until they can run for presidency – a process that can takes many years, if not decades. Given the fact that soldiers are not allowed to hold party positions of significance, it is highly unlikely that a soldier can take off his uniform one day and then become a party leader the next. This, therefore, leaves our General in a real dilemma.

General’s dilemma

Army generals are appointed by the president of the country. In properly functioning democracies, such appointments need to be endorsed by parliament. If parliament refuses to endorse the appointment, the president has to find himself another general. In most cases, presidents would prefer to appoint generals that they can work with. An uneasy relationship between the generals and the president can lead to the general being replaced or, in some cases, the general using his military muscle to stage a coup.

A few weeks ago (before the Wikileaks revelations) many political analysts were speculating that Chiwenga was positioning himself for leadership of Zanu (PF). The puzzle surrounding the rumours about the political general’s ambitions to run for presidency should be seen in the context of a few key factors.

Given the comments attributed to the general, he has thrown in his lot with President Mugabe. Chiwenga’s fortunes are irretrievably tied to those of the president, and to a lesser degree Zanu (PF)’s. The general will be well aware that the end of President Mugabe’s tenure will most likely spell the end of his own tenure as general. The general has also burnt his bridges with opposition groups by openly claiming that he will not work with a president from any other.

The combination of the prospects of an MDC government and the lack of a clear heir to the Zanu (PF) throne will have left the general very uncomfortable. Having sworn that he will not work with the MDC, he does not know who will decide his fate.

Limited capital

As a leader of the army, the general has very limited capital among civilians. He has never been elected to an office and has never really articulated what he stands for. The general has no experience in appealing to the public and, in theory, he does not hold any senior post in any political party.

If he wants to run for presidency on a Zanu (PF) ticket, he will need to be parachuted into the senior ranks of the party and win against seasoned politicians like Joyce Mujuru, Simon Khaya Moyo and Munangagwa. Starting his own party is a possibility, but it would take him a long time to shed the Zanu (PF) paint and build support among civilians.

The other option is that the political general could suspend the constitution and allow the military to take over. This would give him time to build political capital before standing for president in a general election to be held at a date that he chooses. Some speculate the military general had a huge say in the outcome of the 2008 harmonised elections. The power vacuum that is likely to emerge in post-Mugabe Zimbabwe suggests that we should not rule out the possibility of the country being run by the military at some stage.

Those who are close to events in Zimbabwe claim that Zimbabwe is already a

military state, and the constitution has very little bearing on decisions made. As Zanu (PF) has become insecure, they have increased the role of the military in otherwise civilian functions.

Without civilian capital, it might seem that the general’s political future is doomed. This may have been the case if Zimbabwe had been a properly functioning democracy. The chaotic Zimbabwean political environment is the homeostatic regulator any general who harbours secret political ambitions needs. Besides, who says soldiers cannot run countries better than civilians given the failures of Civvy Street in the past three decades? One cannot imagine an army being in charge and allowing green bombers and Chipangano to go on a rampage.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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