“The army is the difference,” said Brian Raftopolous, a former Associate Professor of Development Studies at the University of Zimbabwe. “In Zimbabwe the army has been a huge blockage. We had our Egypt moment between the late 1990’s and 2008 when we had demonstrations, strikes, riots and electoral wins over Zanu (PF). Many people died, many more were imprisoned, property was destroyed – but we were blocked by the military.”
Raftopolous said while the Egyptian and Tunisian military had largely stayed out of the conflict, the Zimbabwean military was likely to copy remnants of the Libyan army, still loyal to besieged Colonel Muammar Gadhafi, waging war on defenceless people. Since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, the military has been used to ruthlessly crush any opposition to President Robert Mugabe’s grip on power.
Exiled political analyst and former newspaper editor, Chofamba Sithole, is sceptical about Zimbabweans ability to rise up against the ruling elite. Mass protests, he said, have not been used as a tool to remove sitting governments anywhere in Sub Saharan Africa, and this was unlikely to change. Sithole said sitting governments’ willingness to unleash violence on unarmed civilians deterred mass protests.
“Zimbabwe is no different; any mass protest would have to withstand a vicious deployment of crude violence by the regime before it can reach the tipping point. Crucially, Mugabe’s government established its capacity for inhuman cruelty early in the 1980s through the Gukurahundi massacres. That grim episode remains instructive on just what sort of measures the regime is prepared to take to liquidate threats to its hold on power,” said Sithole, who now lives in England.
Between 1983 and 1986, an elite unit of the army – the North Korean trained 5th Brigade – brutally put down an insurrection in the opposition stronghold of Matabeleland, killing an estimated 20 000 civilians.
The army, which is under the command of a cabal of generals who fought in the 1970s Rhodesian war for liberation, has intermittently been deployed in the townships to intimidate and terrorise citizens ahead of crucial national elections, and to forestall public dissent.
Human Rights lawyer Daniel Molokele said Zanu (PF)’s use of brute force to head off competition for power and ideas had forced millions of Zimbabweans out of the country, disabling the militant wing that could spearhead any attack on its stranglehold on Harare.
“The young people who are most likely to start popular uprisings have left the country in their millions. The opposition and civil society is in disarray and those still inside the country are repressed by use of the military which has shown a proclivity to crush dissent,” he said.
Molokele, who now lives in Cape Town, dampened any talk of Arabian-style demonstrations in Zimbabwe. “Unless something dramatic like the death of (Prime Minister Morgan) Tsvangirai happens (in suspicious circumstances). Even then I doubt that Zimbabweans will react. There is no catalyst, nothing to spark demonstrations.” He said the country had no history of internal civil disobedience as people had remained apathetic even during the life of Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) between 1965 and 1980.
“Even in 2008, when the ingredients for such an uprising were there, nothing happened and is unlikely to happen now because of a diaspora linkage,” he said. Other analysts, however, believe Zimbabweans missed the opportunity to press home advantages gained over the ruling Zanu (PF) party following spontaneous food riots that rocked the country in 1997.
Since the Arabian riots began, Zimbabweans have been criticised in South Africa for failing to rise up against the Mugabe regime.
But Raftopolous argues: “It is not for lack of effort as many of our people died and property has been destroyed in this fight over the last 10 years. But eventually the dictatorship will fall – everything changes.”