IT is now confirmed that Zimbabwe will be sending troops to the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as part of a standby brigade for a peacekeeping mission. But the pending deployment of troops to the troubled nation looks like a major political gamble for President Robert Mugabe who is facing a tricky election next year.
Fighting between the government of President Joseph Kabila and M23 rebels has been raging on for the past few months, forcing the DRC leader to turn to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for assistance.
At its meeting in Tanzania two weeks ago, SADC leaders expressed concern over the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in the eastern DRC and condemned the M23 rebels' attacks on civilians, the United Nations peacekeepers and humanitarian actors as well as its abuses of human rights, including summary executions, sexual and gender-based violence.
The regional leaders then resolved to urgently send about 4000 troops on a peace-keeping mission drawn from all SADC member states.
Namibia has, however, stated it will not be dispatching any troops to the DRC.
While many were expecting Zimbabwe to take a cue from Namibia given the country's dire economic circumstances, President Mugabe has taken a gamble by committing his troops to the DRC.
While he insists that it is SADC's duty to defend member states from revolts and aggression, his partners in the coalition government accuse him of unilaterally contributing soldiers without consulting them.
There are also concerns the country might not benefit financially from such an adventure as was allegedly the case during its intervention in the DRC war in 1998.
During the 1998 intervention, Zimbabwe suffered severe human and financial losses in a war that also sucked in Angola, Namibia, Rwanda and Uganda.
President Mugabe's pledge to dispatch troops to the DRC has therefore created further rifts in the shaky government of national unity formed between his ZANU-PF party and the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
His rivals are adamant that they should have been consulted first adding that the issue should have been debated in Parliament.
But Joey Bimha, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Zimbabwe, being a member of SADC, was obliged to send troops based on the regional groupings' Treaty and Protocol on Defence and Security to assist the DRC.
He was also quick to point out that the DRC government would foot the bill for the latest adventure.
But critics remain skeptical. Analysts say President Mugabe has taken a major gamble, coming months before make-or-break elections in which he is desperate to fend-off stubborn opponents, particularly Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
They say it would be difficult for the ZANU-PF leader to focus on winning the election while fighting in the DRC, several thousands of kilometres away.
Nhlanhla Dube, spokesperson for the Welshman Ncube-led MDC, said they were opposed to the unilateralism exhibited by President Mugabe in pledging to send soldiers to prop-up Kabila.
He said the deployment of troops for peace- keeping operations, while being part of the country's national responsibility as a member of SADC and the African Union, could not be done without considering the nation's economic circumstances.
"We are of the strong opinion that our country can ill-afford this sojourn of ego because, as we currently stand, we are unable to support our own critical national interests such as fully financing the writing of our constitution, referendum and elections without outside assistance. Our civil service is not receiving adequate salaries and benefit and our social amenities ministries in general are crying out for funding," he said.
Civil servants have threatened to go on strike in January if the coalition government fails to increase their salaries and improve their working condition. The public workers want the least paid employee to earn above the poverty datum line, presently estimated at about US$600.
The least paid civil servant currently takes home about US$250 a month.
Blessing Vava, an analyst, said President Mugabe should have taken a cue from Namibia; apart from consulting with other principals in the Global Political Agreement (GPA).
"President Mugabe should know he is not in government alone, this is a unity government not a ZANU-PF government so he has to consult his partners. In a unity government important issues such as the deployment of troops needs consultations and collective decisions. What President Mugabe is doing is a breach of the GPA, which he is signatory to with Prime Minister Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara," said Vava.
Earnest Mudzengi, a political analyst, said President Mugabe's second adventure into the DRC was more of making an impression on the international stand.
"Whether or not the cost is not on the Zimbabwean taxpayer as claimed by government, the deployment is bound to make President Mugabe unpopular. Remember how the sending of troops to secure the late Laurent Kabila was such an unpopular, costly move. Resending troops to DRC on whatever assignment is set to rekindle the memories of what we lost through that unpopular war," said Mudzengi.
He said the deployment of troops to the DRC would come at the expense of President Mugabe and ZANU-PF.
Mudzengi added: "President Mugabe realises this and this is why he recently told reporters in Equatorial Guinea that Zimbabwe has not deployed troops. This is why the government controlled press has also affronted the claim that the deployment is not at the cost of the Zimbabwean government and tax payers."
Lawton Hikwa, a Bulawayo-based political analyst, said Zimbabwe was a full member of SADC where the head of state and government usually represents it.
"One would believe principals in the government of national unity are aware of recent developments regarding the DRC and they obliged to support regional efforts in restoring peace there," said Hikwa.
Psychology Maziwisa, a political analyst, said it was foolhardy for the MDC formations to accuse the ZANU-PF leader of unilateralism by pledging to send troops to the DRC, arguing it was President Mugabe's constitutional right to deploy troops without consulting his partners in the coalition government.
"There is no need for consultations, he is the commander-in-chief for goodness sake," said Maziwisa. "Besides, the notion that President Mugabe has deployed troops in the DRC is just not true. Zimbabwe has contributed to a SADC standby force, which force is wholly-funded by SADC and is used as a means of maintaining peace and order in the region from acts of unlawful rebellion and aggression," he said.
Maziwisa said he would not be surprised if the DRC issue was used as propaganda to discredit ZANU-PF ahead of crucial elections next year.
"But it won't work partly because Zimbabwe has not deployed troops in the DRC but also because the next election will be based purely on the record of our political parties particularly over the last four years," he said.