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Zimbabwe Army's deserters underscore country's troubles

President Mugabe has traditionally drawn strong support from the military. But lack of pay and distasteful assignments may be weakening that loyalty.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 2007


They are the missing regiment: 1,500 men deserting from the Zimbabwean Defense Forces across the South African border, sometimes in groups of two or three, and sometimes in whole platoons.

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The loss of a regiment, talked about in hushed tones at Army headquarters in the early part of this year, is no small matter in a country as poor as Zimbabwe. But for the regime of President Robert Mugabe, an anticolonial commander who has always found his staunchest supporters among the military, it could be fatal. If he can't rely on his own security forces to maintain control, one year ahead of crucial presidential elections, how much control does he really have?

"This is the breakdown of Mugabe's most trusted sector; he banked on the military and the security forces," says Sikhumbuzo Ndiweni, a retired Zimbabwe Defense Forces lieutenant colonel and now a commentator on Zimbabwean affairs. Mr. Ndiweni himself fled Zimbabwe in November 2003 because of what he called continual harassment by police.

"This spells doom and a painful end, [in the same vein as] Mengistu, Idi Amin, and Charles Taylor," he says, referring to the former dictators of Ethiopia, Uganda, and Liberia, respectively. One of them, Mengistu Haile Mariam, is living in exile in Zimbabwe.

The picture within the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, as told by officers like Ndiweni and a half-dozen deserters interviewed by the Monitor, is a desperate one. President Mugabe has taken strong measures to ensure that the military will remain at his side. As recently as February, the Army chief of staff, General Chedondo, told his soldiers that all future requests for leave would have to be approved by President Mugabe himself. Deserters would be hanged.

Even so, in February, scores of recently recruited officer cadets quit before finishing their courses at the elite Zimbabwe Military Academy in Gweru. In January, it was broadly reported that 10 commandos from a unit fled on the same night. Neither South Africa nor Zimbabwe has released statistics confirming the desertion and arrival of Zimbabwean soldiers, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that the trickle is turning into a flood.

Recruiting loyalists

To fill the gaps, Mugabe has been recruiting people whose loyalty can be trusted, replacing his own Presidential Guard with members of his secret police and filling Army ranks with his party's youth militia and aging veterans of the liberation struggle from the 1970s. Meanwhile, top generals are constructing their own survival strategies, making alliances along tribal and ethnic lines in order to take power – or at least survive – once Mugabe is gone.

"We're moving toward a collapsed state," says Chris Maroleng, a top Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria (now known as Tshwane). Mugabe's crackdown on the Army "shows that the president is preparing for compromise, for mediation. He is tired, frankly."

To ensure loyalty, Mugabe gives priority to the military at the expense of other ministries, Mr. Maroleng says. "Last week, the Central Intelligence Organization's personnel got a 200-percent pay increase. In a security state, anything is acceptable."

But for a professional soldier like Sgt. Patrick Dube, a platoon sergeant and crew commander with five years of combat experience who fled a couple of months ago, there are some things that are unacceptable.