Zimbabwe is headed for turbulent waters. Over the last few months, a protest movement has highlighted popular dissatisfaction with what many Zimbabweans see as the economic mismanagement and heavy-handed tactics of the government of President Robert Mugabe. Opposition groups are joining forces in an effort to defeat the ruling party in the 2018 elections. Even members of the national war veterans’ association, who traditionally have been reliable supporters of Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), have publicly denounced the president. Together with a deep economic crisis, these developments have set off fears of impending instability, political violence, and even civil war or state collapse. Any of those outcomes could produce a humanitarian catastrophe.
The good news is that the event that could trigger the worst violence—the loss of control over Zimbabwe’s armed forces by the country’s civilian government—is still unlikely. That is because the ZANU-PF government and the top echelons of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) enjoy an unusually close relationship. Their bond developed during their shared struggle as part of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), one of the groups that fought against the white Rhodesian settler state for more than a decade before taking power in 1980 as the newly independent Zimbabwe’s first ruling party.
Many of the Zimbabweans who commanded ZANU’s guerrillas during the civil war now hold top jobs in the country’s army and air force. In the past, as in the run-up to the controversial 2002 presidential election, when Zimbabwe’s army chief declared that his forces would only recognize a government headed by a veteran of the civil war, these commanders have closed ranks around the party when its grip on power was under threat. The military’s loyalty to ZANU-PF is a product of deep ideological, personal, and institutional ties. The relationship lies at the heart of Zimbabwe’s political order, and it will discourage the mobilization of armed groups beyond the state’s control for
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