Some analysts are forecasting that continuing army revolts and economic instability could force President Robert Mugabe to share power with the opposition, putting the country’s shattered economy on the road to recovery.
The rising groundswell of anger within the army over poor salaries and cash shortages poses a serious threat to Mugabe, who has traditionally relied on the loyalty of the army to keep the opposition in check.
Dozens of soldiers have been taking to the streets of Harare since November 27, clashing with anti-riot and military police deployed in the city centre to counter the protests. There have been sporadic exchanges of gunfire in the capital as dissident soldiers and military police clash.
Army protests hit a crescendo on December 1 when over 100 soldiers, dressed in full military fatigues, emerged from banking halls in the city centre empty-handed after cash had run out due to rationing.
They first attacked the Market Square bus terminus in downtown Harare, which is notorious for illegal foreign currency dealings, assaulting foreign currency dealers and seizing cash from them to demand "our money".
Then they swept across the city, looting and vandalising shops.
The detachment of troops was from Cranborne Barracks and accused the street foreign currency dealers of consorting with the central bank to vandalise the economy.
Zimbabwe’s bankrupt central bank regularly raises foreign currency from the black market and relies on an informal network of street traders.
The riots on December 1 were repulsed by the military police, resulting in the death of "two miscreants", according to the army.
Security sources say Zimbabwe’s army is seriously considering a curfew and has maintained a heavy deployment of military police in the city centre.
"We need to take appropriate measures to counter their actions effectively," said a military spokesman.
A pact signed by the military and Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono in November set up a scheme where soldiers could access cash weekly from army barracks. However, soldiers say the facility is being abused by top generals, who are making hefty withdrawals daily, leaving the rank-and-file in the army with nothing.
Government regulations only permit withdrawals from banks of 500,000 Zimbabwe dollars a day, hardly enough for a single fare on public transport.
Military experts are warning the riots are a precursor to mutiny, while pro-government analysts say the disturbances were just a simple case of indiscipline within the ranks.
Army sources said the military courts are currently overwhelmed with cases related to indiscipline in the rank-and-file of the army as rebellious troops protest against mounting hardships. The troops on December 1 were also objecting to appalling conditions in the army barracks, where they complain of being forced to subsist on a diet of the staple sadza (a maize meal mush) and beans only.
Dozens of anti-riot and military police have taken up positions around the city centre after fresh threats by labour leaders to march to the central bank to demand the complete removal of withdrawal limits, imposed to ration scarce cash supplies.
Tensions are mounting as civilians supporting the soldiers’ demands join the demonstrations; many hurled rocks at anti-riot and military police troops during the December 1 protests.
The scene then was reminiscent of acts of civil disobedience in 1999 in Zimbabwe’s capital sparked by food shortages that spread like wildfire through this impoverished nation of 11.8 million people.
Zimbabwe, once a breadbasket of southern Africa, is now among the poorest countries in the region, and has been struggling to establish democracy since disputed elections held in March.
The bloody rebellion of soldiers could lead to Mugabe’s ousting, warned Harare-based political commentator Ronald Shumba.
"It’s a situation becoming rapidly explosive," he said. "This is a sign of a deep-seated problem in the army – in Mugabe’s regime, in fact."
An official police spokesman tried to downplay the near mutiny, claiming it was a simple case of "theft and robbery".
Some analysts said the protests herald the beginning of the end for Mugabe, 84, who is beginning to lose the support of powerful factions in his own party and the increasingly disaffected army, police and security forces.
Mugabe, who has been in power for 28 years, has ruled with fear and patronage. But now a combination of an unprecedented economic collapse and growing opposition within his security forces and the ruling ZANU-PF party present the clearest threats to his rule.
There is palpable anger in the police and army over low salaries and the fast-track promotions of ZANU-PF loyalists and veterans of the guerrilla war that ended white rule in 1980, according to a private in the army.
"Morale in the army has hit rock bottom," he said. "Everyone is complaining about the increasing hardships. It would seem the majority are blaming President Mugabe himself for causing the hardships.
“They think it’s better for him to share power with the opposition to rescue the economy."
He was unwilling to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Hyperinflation is spreading poverty, as even basic goods become unaffordable. Supermarket trolleys lie idle as few can afford to buy more than a handful of goods.
Zimbabwe’s official inflation rate was 231 million per cent in July but independent economists and retailers say it is now above quintillion per cent and picking up speed.
The crisis has hit soldiers hard, who earn an equivalent of 3 US dollars per month.
Small-scale mutinies have been reported, but despite Mugabe’s precarious support in the army and police, analysts say a military coup or widespread revolt are unlikely.
Professor Jonathan Moyo, Mugabe’s former information minister and currently an independent member of parliament, dismissed suggestions that the revolt in the security forces opened the possibility of a coup.
He said it was just a symptom of Mugabe’s failure to reward the soldiers with privileges, including generous payouts, as the economy collapses that is responsible for the protests.
"He is fast losing the support of his most reliable supporters, but suggesting it’s a precursor to a coup is pie in the sky," he said.
However, Professor Heneri Dzinotyiwei, an opposition deputy who is also a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said Mugabe faced trouble from his army, which used to be considered solidly loyal to the president.
"I think to a large extent it is an indication of the intensity of frustration in the army," he said. "As to what might happen? It depends on how the banking community in collaboration with armed forces are able to contain this. But you can’t blame the soldiers."
A banking analyst who declined to be named said Mugabe was committing regime change himself through his disastrous economic policies, now manifested in the military protests.
"I think it’s the end-game," he said. "Things have reached a critical point."
Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.