Johannesburg — THE Zimbabwean army and air force have been hit by protests over the government's failure to increase their salaries as well as chronic food shortages at their barracks.
Military sources said this week soldiers were increasingly unsettled by government's refusal to increase their salaries and provide adequate food supplies to the 40000-strong army.
Disgruntled armed forces pose a serious threat to President Robert Mugabe's regime, which depends on the state security apparatus -- the army, the air force and the intelligence service -- for its survival.
Mugabe last week urged the armed forces to remain vigilant to deal with what he termed a "vicious imperialist onslaught".
The situation has been worsened by public servants' worsening bureaucratic inefficiency.
Sluggish performance by poorly paid and demoralised public servants has aggravated the economic crisis.
Sources said army commanders have in the past two weeks been battling to assure soldiers the situation would be attended to as soon as possible.
It is said some troops have been detained at 2 Brigade barracks in Harare in connection with "indiscipline" related to agitation for salary increases. Sources said the soldiers were expected to be court-marshalled.
Senior army commanders have been telling soldiers to channel their grievances through proper structures instead of engaging in "unruly campaigning" which could easily be interpreted as "mutiny".
Sources said a senior army commander told troops on September 13 at Cranborne barracks in Harare there would be no pay rise until January.
A few days later a senior military intelligence officer told troops at the Presidential Guard HQ in Dzivarasekwa in Harare the issue would be addressed, but no improvements were forthcoming.
Sources said "dozens" of soldiers had been prevented from leaving the army in protest over the current problems. Instead, they said, troops were being sent on forced leave in a bid, prompted by food shortages, to reduce numbers at the barracks.
Army spokesman Lt Col Aggrey Wushe has denied soldiers were going on leave due to food shortages, saying they had accrued leave days during the Democratic Republic of Congo war between 1998 and 2002.
The army also denied there was unrest within its ranks.
"We have food to feed them until the next financial year. We can keep them in the barracks but the days they accrued will be forfeited," Wushe said.
"We are saying, 'take them now or they will get forfeited'."
Army commanders are traditionally loyal to Mugabe and generals occupy the upper echelons of parastatals and government posts.
Mugabe has militarised government bureaucracy by deploying former soldiers to perform civilian duties.
A few years ago, a leaked memo by former British High Commissioner to Zimbabwe, Peter Longworth, addressed to the Prime Minister Tony Blair's office, said Downing Street thought there was no real threat of a military coup against Mugabe's regime despite the prevailing political and economic crisis.
The social and economic conditions have, however, dramatically worsened since then.
In the run-up to the disputed 2002 presidential election, army generals announced they would not accept an elected president without liberation struggle credentials -- a reference to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
The army was heavily involved in the controversial election, which was won by Mugabe.
A leaked memo written by army commanders, urging their structures to be ready for the 2002 election, was widely taken as evidence of military influence on the poll.
Some civilian programmes, such as the land reform programme and the rebuilding exercise that followed the demolition of shanties and informal markets, were also carried out by the army.
Zimbabwe needs to import more grain to feed at least 2,2-million people who cannot fend for themselves until the new harvest next April, the state-owned Herald newspaper reported yesterday.