In a notice to the public, the army’s communications department said they would conduct “snap searches” that would include confiscating camouflage fashion apparel.
According to section 99 (2) (c) of the Defence Act, civilians are barred from wearing anything resembling military gear.
“Members of the public are urged to voluntarily surrender these clothing items to the search teams before the searches are conducted or surrender them to the nearest police station or camp. Please be warned and comply accordingly to avoid any inconveniences that might be caused by the exercise,” reads the notice.
During the riots from January 14 to 16 that led to thousands being arrested – and left at least 12 dead and hundreds wounded – the army blamed rogue soldiers and deserters for causing mayhem.
Human rights groups shared videos online of soldiers and police moving door-to-door in urban areas, beating up and shooting people suspected to have participated in protests. In some footage, uniformed forces led from the front in looting sprees.
“Some of these uniforms worn by criminals were seized by rogue elements during the recent riots in Epworth and Chegutu. A case in point is a recent arrest of five armed robbers in Epworth, Harare, on January 14 2019, who were using police and military regalia to commit armed robberies after hiring vehicles from car rental companies,” said senior police assistant commissioner Charity Charamba at the time.
But the opposition MDC Alliance rejected the “stolen uniforms” narrative as a mere cover-up.
“They can’t expect us to believe that as state security agents they were robbed of their own uniforms and stuff,” said Nkululeko Sibanda, spokesman for MDC leader Nelson Chamisa.
“We were given the uniform at the party office,” he told the Harare magistrate’s court as he answered questions from prosecutor Shepherd Makonde.
A serving soldier, Norest Sosera, appeared in the same court for committing robbery during the January disturbances while he was wearing a uniform.
The army, the police and the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) have a long history of aiding Zanu-PF politics.
Civil-military relations have been strained since the August 1 2018 protests that erupted to dispute Emmerson Mnangagwa’s narrow election victory.
Last month, soldiers were advised to leave their uniforms at work because of the general anger towards them from the public.
Prior to these strained relations, however, the army had created a conducive environment for the public to protest as it led plans to remove former president Robert Mugabe from power in November 2017.
It also took over policing duties from the Zimbabwe Republic Police, which had become unpopular during Mugabe’s reign because of rampant corruption, illegal detentions and the growing number of roadblocks that functioned like tollgates.