Potential Hot Spots: November 15, 2003


General Vitalis Zvinavashe is set to retire at the end of December, after nine years at the helm of the defense forces. Zvinavashe had overseen Zimbabwe's troops during the Congo Civil War, where up to 12,000 of his troops had been fighting alongside the Congo's government forces. He also assisted the United Nations in deploying peacekeepers to Somalia, as well as military observers to Rwanda, Uganda and Angola. Zvinavashe started his military career in 1967, when he joined the ZANLA rebels and received guerilla warfare training at in Tanzania. Interestingly enough, he was later appointed the camp's political commissar.

So what happens after this loyal friend of President Mugabe retires? After the Zvinavashe announcement at the beginning of November, the military's leadership was reportedly anxious after reports that Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) commander Lieutenant General Constantine Chiwenga was picked to become the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) commander ahead of Air Marshall Perence Shiri. Air Force and Army commanders are supposed to be rotated in that leadership position, to avoid charges of favoritism.

However, sidelining Shiri was calculated to defuse any political undertones that might emerge as a result of his association with the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade (which led a violent anti-dissident insurgency operation in Matabeleland where hundreds of Ndebeles were massacred in the early 1980s). If Mugabe chose Shiri, he'd alienate members of his own political party. This begs the question, what can or will Shiri do?

Buying the loyalty of the military and playing politics with senior officers is par for the course in Zimbabwe. Back in January 2002, Michael Quintana, editor of the Africa Defense Journal had warned that Mugabe would be unwise to rely too heavily on the army to keep him in power if Zimbabwe's voters wanted him to go. This remains true, since Zimbabwe's worsening economy makes regime change more attractive. 

Mugabe has precedent to fear a revolt to unseat him and his friends. Immediately after the Rhodesian government capitulated in 1980, 5,000 ZIPRA rebels took up arms against then-new President Mugabe's ZANLA. Only the efforts of a few hundred black and white former Rhodesian soldiers (together with the air force) managed to defeat the rebellion and prevent Zimbabwe from descending into open civil war. - Adam Geibel


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