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A need to emphasize civil supremacy over the military

Photo credit: Zenzo Nkobi (1977) via SAHA. ZPRA troops in training

Real transformation of the political and economic space that opens the African continent to its full potential and prosperity remains elusive because mind-sets have been resistive to change within the continent’s leadership. We have previously argued that the main problem with many African governments led by mid-20th Century liberation movements is that many of these movements and the political parties fronting them are mere subsidiaries of their military wings and its authority. These parties are military dictatorships masquerading as civil authority; they have shown an uncanny willingness to defy public interest and deny safe space for multiparty democracy.

The problem of the mid-20th Century African liberation movements  

These liberation movements are not primed for democracy, they have insufficient in-built democratic structures – the checks and balances that allow civilian access to their activities are weak, if they exist. That obvious weakness has been nationalised in the form of the governments they lead; parties fronted by liberation movements have no tolerance to views other than theirs, they have no patience to public inquisition, they are not used to accountability. They are not open to multiparty democracy and would happily deny public access to authority to run government – local or national.

Liberation movements have tended to have a lopsided authority where the military wing ended up acquiring disproportionate control of the movement leaving civilian authority subservient to it at independence. We can see it in the award of ‘national honours’ in Zimbabwe, the ‘heroes’ buried at the ‘National Heroes’ Acre’ are mostly ZANU members honoured for their military contributions to the liberation struggle and defence of ZANU interests. The honours are militarised and politicised, civilians have yet to be recognised for their contributions to the country and post-independence heroes are yet to be considered for their various contributions to society.

What is apparent is the military’s influential role in what is essentially a civil undertaking. The liberation movement’s main obsession has been protecting their party interest and hold on power over national interests. Subsidiary to their operational interests is making genuine political changes to make the scene more inclusive and foster progressive social and economic reforms that are long overdue. When changes have been made or promised those have been cosmetic at best.

In many countries civil society is restricted from corridors of power; many of the post-independence governments’ are fearful of their army hence the tendency to befriend army leaders and look away or ignore military malpractices in fear of interfering with military leaders’ interests.

Developing a healthy relationship with our army

Photo credit: Zenzo Nkobi (1977) via SAHA. ZPRA forces being given food by women

We would love to develop and nature a positive and cherished relationship with our army. We are proud of the bravery and achievements of Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZPRA) forces in the fight to liberate our nation, but even more important we hold these forces in high esteem for their respect of civil authority. It would be essential for Matabeleland’s future that we go back to those principles that made the ferocious ZPRA forces feared by the enemy but loveable, and not feared forces within their communities.

The 1908 argument made by the British reforming Secretary of War Richard Haldane, “We want the army to be a popular institution and not a menace to civil liberty” is relevant to Matabeleland today. We want the army to do its job of protecting the country and leave civilians to make government decisions.   

Let us revisit a fundamental principle of American constitutional government, that of the principle of civil supremacy over the military. The principle is founded on two major points that: (1) the ends of government policy are to be set by civilians; the military is limited to decisions about means; and (2) it is for the civilian leadership to decide where the line between ends and means (and hence between civilian and military responsibility) is to be drawn (Kemp and Hudlin, 1992).

It must be appreciated by all and sundry that the army exists to protect the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the country from external enemies not to govern the country, and governing decisions must be left to civil authority.

We have argued in the past against the Zimbabwean government’s frequent deployment of the army to the streets to use force to subdue civilians exercising their right to protest against their government. This is not what armed forces are trained for, and not what they joined to do.

The Matabeleland government we aspire to is one that will fully understand that armed forces are trained in the use of lethal force, they are trained for battle, trained to impose their will by force on an enemy, they are trained for the express use of defending the integrity of our territory and citizens of the country against external threats, and they should not be regularly used as an instrument of force against the citizens of that same country.

Dealing with internal unrest

Outbreaks of major riots or insurrection are often an opportune moment for many governments to use the army, but we need to exhaust all possible options before inviting the army to deal with internal unrest. A specifically trained force – a riot police – often under the command of interior ministries rather than defence ministries would be the best option.

The riot police are trained to deal with the circumstances they are likely to face, e.g., mobs of civilians, maybe even lightly armed. There are legal underpinnings within which the riot police will work and the force is fully aware of those.


A failure to define and maintain boundaries between civil and military authority has left the latter, which often has exclusive access to force, holding the cards in the politics of some independent African countries. We in Matabeleland have learned lessons from a ZANU government which is an extension of the Zimbabwe National Army. Many African liberation movements have lost their way, many are now driven by the obsession for power for personal gain not the desire to serve the public. They have become a hindrance than a facilitator of reform and progress.


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