Mugabe's grip on defence forces main problem in power talks

HARARE – President Robert Mugabe’s refusal to let go the Joint Operations Command (JOC), a state security organisation that is only accountable to the veteran ruler, has emerged as the single biggest threat to Harare’s shaky coalition government.

JOC is made up of army commanders, Central Intelligence Organisation directors, police and prison commissioners – most of them veterans of Zimbabwe’s war of liberation.

Last year, they were accused of spearheading President Mugabe’s violent fight back after he lost the first round of the presidential election to then arch rival and now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

The 85 year old leader eventually won the presidential runoff election on June 27 after Mr Tsvangirai was forced to pull out citing the deaths and displacement of his supporters during the violence engineered by the security forces.

But the result was rejected throughout the world forcing Mr Mugabe to form a unity government with Mr Tsvangirai and Professor Arthur Mutambara of the smaller Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) formation.

Despite the formation of the unity government, the service chiefs have refused to salute Mr Tsvangirai as the Prime Minister claiming that he is a surrogate of Western powers seeking to recolonise Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Costantine Chiwenga, Police Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri and Commissioner of Prisons Retired Major General Paradzai Zimondi have alled refused to salute the PM saying he did not participate in the war of liberation.

Mr Mugabe’s refusal to dismantle JOC, which under the Global Political Agreement Zanu PF signed with the MDC formations leading to the formation of the unity government, must be replaced by the National Security Council (NSC), is now one of the few sticky outstanding issues in the ongoing inter party talks. 

On Monday the three principals in the coalition are scheduled to make an announcement on progress in the talks but this is unlikely to include an agreement on the security forces and Mr Mugabe’s unilateral appointment of his cronies to head the central bank and the attorney general’s office.

The outstanding issues would be referred to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – the guarantors of the GPA.

President Mugabe’s resolve to hold on to the notorious JOC was recently emboldened by resolutions of Zanu PF’s congress, which directed the party negotiators not to compromise on the issue of the central bank governor, the AG and the security forces.

“Security forces are a product of the national liberation struggle, belong to the people and are mandated to defend the country’s territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty,” the resolutions read in part.

“Zanu PF as the party of revolution and the people’s vanguard shall not allow the security forces to be the subject of any negotiation for a so-called security sector reform that is based on patent misrepresentations of Zimbabwe’s heroic history and for the mere purpose of weakening the state so that it can be easily overthrown.”

MDC negotiators told a team of facilitators appointed by South African President Jacob Zuma to speed up negotiations between the warring parties that they want JOC dismantled because the NSC was now in place. “Zanu PF expressed the contrary view that JOC only dealt with operational issues whilst the National Security Council dealt with policy issues,” the facilitators said in the report submitted to President Zuma last week.

“The MDC also raised, on the subject of security reform, the existence of a formalised and legitimised intelligence agency.” 

The MDC claimed that at least 200 of its supporters died during the violence engineered by JOC ahead of last year’s controversial elections while thousands others were tortured, injured and displaced. 

Has always denied

The army has always denied that its members were behind the violence. But the MDC and civil society have produced several publications identifying the high ranking army officers and the areas in which they operated from.

Mr Mugabe would want to retain the loyalty of the army ahead of elections, which he has warned are not far away.

At the congress the ageing ruler said: “The inclusive government has a short life of 24 months.

“So we must be ready for the elections and we must not be defeated like we were last year.

“We must win resoundingly and regain the constituencies we lost.”

However, analysts say Zanu PF, which lost its parliamentary majority to the MDC for the first time since independence cannot win a free and fair election anytime soon.