The Zimbabwean army has revised its political involvement in electoral processes ahead the 2018 presidential, parliamentary and municipal polls so as to duck local and international notice and condemnation, it has been established.
The new strategy involves using undercover methods of military deployments, in contrast with the direct and long term stationing of ordinary uniformed soldiers—now commonly referred to as “boys on leave”—especially in rural areas as has been the case in several previous elections.
Emmerson Mnangagwa last November replaced ex-president Robert Mugabe, in power since April 1980, through a soft coup initiated by the army and his deputy is the former commander of the defence forces, Constantine Chiwenga who is reported to wield excessive power in the new administration.
Politicians, political parties, a democracy research institution and civil society have in recent months alleged that the government of President Mnangagwa has deployed thousands of soldiers to intimidate voters and help with Zanu PF’s campaigns.
Figures of the alleged military deployments in rural wards and constituencies have changed from 2,000 to 5,000 in recent months.
The Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) last week released a study report indicating that, out of a 154-strong sample of respondents it interviewed between April and July, the majority testified that largely uniformed soldiers were present in rural communities ahead of the 2018 elections.
But an annoyed army spokesperson, Colonel Overson Mugwisi, recently called a press conference where he accused the media of acting irresponsibly by reporting on the alleged involvement of the army in Zanu PF political campaigns.
He insisted the army had no direct involvement in electoral processes but would only assist the police in providing security and transport assistance during elections and also denied that soldiers participated in the Zanu PF primaries.
“Falsehoods that have been reported include allegations of ZDF deployments in rural areas to intimidate villagers so that they support a certain political party to enhance that party’s chances of winning in the 2018 harmonised elections,” said Mugwisi.
His press statement insinuated that the army had never been involved in electoral processes.
As part of its five-month investigation into the matter, The Standard, working in collaboration with Information for Development Trust (IDT), reached out to Mugwisi who reiterated his statements at the press conference.
“Nothing has changed (from what I said at the press conference). There is nobody out there. Our position is clear, we deployed nobody and if you see someone doing something out there, report to the police or bring the name to us, otherwise you are wasting our time talking about the same things over and over again,” said Mugwisi.
Facts on the ground, though, fly in the face of Mugwisi’s denials.
Our investigations confirmed that, contrary to Mugwisi’s attempt to rebut military involvement in previous elections, soldiers had indeed been deployed to rural wards, districts and provinces in previous elections.
Villagers testified that the soldiers, some of who had spent up to 12 years at their rural homes, had in fact been allocated residential stands and farming plots and integrated into the Zanu PF structures where they worked with traditional leaders and the local ruling party leadership despite being on the army payroll.
They helped with mobilisation of supporters but most importantly used their presence in their areas of origin to intimidate and harass opposition supporters during election time and to gather and relay intelligence information to the party and security sector.
In the early days of deployment, the “boys on leave” would don their military fatigue, but shed this for casual attire along the way.
Findings of our investigations differ from the claims made by political parties and the ZDI though.
Engagements with military intelligence, police and central intelligence operatives revealed that the army had changed is tactics, recalling the ordinary soldiers to the barracks and replacing them with undercover servicemen.
“Most of the boys on leave were ordered to return to the barracks. They would have compromised our operations since they are well known and could be easily identified. Operatives from military intelligence are now running the show,” said one intelligence source who cannot be named for professional and security reasons.
The withdrawals started in January, the sources divulged, and since the soldiers are now inactive, they are having to go on leave for prolonged periods.
Investigations made in the Midlands, Mashonaland Central and Mashonaland East provinces seemed to support the claim that the “boys on leave” had, indeed, been recalled.
Villagers acknowledged that the soldiers, who were well-known by virtue of having grown up in the same areas they were deployed to, had since disappeared from their wards.
They had spotted soldiers in uniform and using army trucks, though, but the occasional military personnel had visited their areas or passed through while on such duties as the Command Agriculture campaign or when there were rallies in their areas.
The villagers, however, were fearful that the soldiers coming on Command Agriculture business could be out to spy on them but added that they did not stay for too long in their areas.
An MDC Alliance parliamentary aspirant who lost in the outfit’s primary elections told The Standard that the soldiers who had been stationed in his rural district were no longer there.
None of the opposition leaders who had promised to provide names and other details of soldiers who had allegedly been deployed to rural areas was forthcoming with the evidence despite being door-stepped repeatedly.
However, some rural opposition members indicated that shadowy persons appeared at their rallies.
They could not be from the Police Internal Security Intelligence (PISI) unit because those, by virtue of being stationed at the local police stations, were well known.
“It wouldn’t have worked to keep those soldiers in the villages because they would have been easily noticed by international election observers and the opposition would have been able to get their details and shared them with the observers without any difficult,” said the military intelligence source.
President Mnangagwa has repeatedly promised free, fair and credible elections as part of his strategy to re-engage the international community that had isolated Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s strong-arm rule.
He has opened the door for international election observers, among them from the European Union (EU), which is already on the ground together with team from southern Africa and the African Union (AU).
Lateral transfers, sources said, had been made to boost the military intelligence department which has been lean all along, it was established.
Even then, the department’s establishment has remained relatively small given the huge task that the department is faced with in the run-up to the July 30 elections.
The sources could not provide the exact number of operatives working in the department but estimated them to run into several hundreds.
Since the recall of the ordinary soldiers, said the sources, the undercover military operatives had been forced to work overtime.
“We have to penetrate every corner of the country and, because of that, we are spending weeks away from home. The problem is that we are getting little money in T and S (travel and subsistence). We are also owed allowances that date back to Operation Restore Legacy,” said another source.
Operation Restore Legacy was the code name of the soft coup that forced Mugabe and his inner circle of politicians out of power and, for some, into exile.
The role of the military details, it emerged, mainly involves intelligence gathering relating to local political events such as rallies, leaderships of political parties as well as party support trends.
The information is then relayed to the military headquarters and the ruling party head office that has reportedly been using it to map the Zanu PF election campaign.
When Rugeje assumed his current position as the national organiser, he dismissed the leaner civilian staff that had been working in the commissariat department at the Zanu PF headquarters under Saviour Kasukuwere who the army accused of being part of the cabal that was misleading Mugabe.
Rugeje replaced the civilian personnel with 30 new individuals drawn from the military who are said to have played an active role in running the Zanu PF primaries.
Attempts to talk to him were made on numerous occasions but he was not picking his phone and when it was answered and the reporter identified himself, the person answering insisted the line did not belong to Rugeje.
The military intelligence officers reportedly move from one area to another, with the periods they spend in one place varying on the basis of their mission.
They sometimes wear Zanu PF regalia and engage the traditional and local party leadership but are hardly noticeable even though some villagers are getting suspicious of the strangers.
Villagers at the Range, a civilian registration centre just outside Chivu in the Midlands province, spoke of five outsiders who camped there for days and suspected that they were intelligence operatives.
The villagers said the five sometimes wore Zanu PF brand wear and boasted that they would work “kudzosera mudhara panyanga” (a Shona phrase meaning to ensure President Mnangagwa was re-elected).
In rural Murewa in Mashonaland East province, villagers also revealed that a team in a white four-wheel drive had recently boarded at Chemhondoro Primary School for a while.
While the “boys on leave” have largely vacated their rural outposts, villagers’ relief may be short-lived.
The security sources said the recalled soldiers were likely to be redeployed to help Zanu PF prepare for a presidential run-off.
Zanu PF is said to be budgeting for a run-off, based on intelligence gathered by military operatives so far that indicates that Mnangagwa is unlikely to score more than 50 percent of the vote to form a government on his own.
According to the Electoral Act, a presidential candidate must garner at least 50 percent plus one vote to be able to claim an outright win, failure of which there must a run-off election as was the case in 2008.
Afrobarometer, working the locally based Mass Public Opinion Institute, has given Mnangagwa 44 percent of the vote in the first round while indicating that Nelson Chamisa, his main rival who heads the Movement for Democratic (MDC) Alliance, will get 28 percent.
Simon Khaya Moyo, the Zanu PF spokesperson who is also the acting Information minister, dismissed reports of the army ever working to help the ruling party election campaigns.
“”Why should we (enlist the army)? Zanu PF is a mass based party with millions of followers. What would be the point of looking for support from the military? We are capable of winning on our own,” said Khaya Moyo.
The story was originally published by our media partner, The Standard (Zimbabwe), courtesy of an investigative journalism grant and mentoring from IDT