SINCE Independence from British colonial rule in 1980, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), initially reputed as one of the most professional armies in Africa, has increasingly been reduced to a partisan outfit, sometimes even operating like a para-military wing of Zanu PF, especially during elections periods.
The Zimbabwe military was one of the best in Africa with good training, vast operational experience and progressive doctrines and policies drawn from all over the world.
After three armies which fought against each during the liberation struggle, the Rhodesians and Zanla and Zipra, were integrated in 1980 to become a relatively modern and professional force, it was deployed in Mozambique from 1983-1992 and later Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from 1998 to 2002.
The Zimbabwe National Army, which together Air Force of Zimbabwe form the ZDF, also participated in observer and peacekeeping missions in Angola, Rwanda, Somalia, Lesotho, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nepal, Burundi and Sudan. Furthermore, it also took part in natural disasters rescue missions in Namibia, Zambia and Mozambique.
That is partly why the South African government has requested Air Force of Zimbabwe instructors help in training and modernising the South African Air Force, a positive testimonial for the ZDF.
Despite its good organisation and its vision to "provide a highly professional land force capable of carrying out its constitutional mandate", the ZDF has in recent years seen its integrity and credibility diminishing due to its growing politicalisation and brazen dabbling in partisan politics by its commanders at the behest of Zanu PF.
Although this has been happening since the 1980s, the military started being consistently deployed into political terrain when President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF were facing serious problems beginning 2000 following the emergence of the MDC.
During every election since then, the military is deployed covertly and sometimes openly to do political commissariat duties for Zanu PF which has now formally employed former Air vice-Marshal Henry Muchena and ex-CIO director-internal Sydney Nyanhungo.
While in some instances, military units are deployed in uniform to posture politically and campaign for Zanu PF, there are also clandestine deployments, mainly of soldiers who have now come to be known as "Boys On Leave" as they are given time to be off their professional duties to do political work for Zanu PF.
As Mugabe and Zanu PF came under increasing political pressure, security service chiefs - who are now some of the richest people in Zimbabwe with farms, huge houses and fleets of luxury cars - have openly declared their political loyalty to Mugabe and Zanu PF, ensuring the military is manipulated and abused for campaign purposes.
Since Zanu PF is engulfed in internal strife and its structures have collapsed in many areas, state institutions, particularly the military, are now propping it up and that is why security forces are currently its pillar of strength.
During the Global Political Agreement (GPA) negotiations, the issue of security sector reform loomed large.
Calls for reformation of the military, police, prisons, state intelligence services and other critical arms of the security sector are growing.
Despite clear provisions in Article XIII of the GPA which stipulate that "state organs and institutions do not belong to any party and should be impartial in the discharge of their duties", senior top ranking military and police officers have been quoted on several occasions openly supporting Zanu PF while clothed in uniform and on official duty.
Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa recently claimed security sector reforms are not part of the GPA and parties pushing for this are driven by an "illegal regime change agenda".
Zimbabwe Democracy Institute director Pedzisai Ruhanya said the security sector has always been the driving force behind Mugabe's rule, hence Zanu PF's stiff resistance to reforms in that area.
"The state security apparatus has been deeply involved in the politics of the country and has been the vanguard in defence of Mugabe's rule for 33 years now," he said.
Ruhanya also said security forces have openly played Zanu PF's commissariat role in all previous elections, citing the June 2008 presidential poll run-off after Mugabe had suffered a historic defeat to Prime Minister Tsvangirai in the first round of voting.
The security sector's open support for Zanu PF has raised legitimate fears that imminent crucial elections could lead to a repeat of the bloody June 2008 poll -- condemned internationally as a sham -- in which 200 opposition supporters lost their lives.
Eldred Masunungure, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe, said despite professional integration and retraining of the military since 1980 the state has failed to cut the symbiotic relationship between former guerrilla commanders and Zanu PF political leaders.
"In 1980 the British Military and Advisory Training Team (Bmatt) failed to inculcate professionalism in the Zimbabwe Defence Forces through a separation of military activities from political ones as there was no clear division between military and political engagements during the armed struggle," Masunungure said.
"That relationship makes it unavoidable for the military to react in defence of Mugabe and Zanu PF. So when Zanu PF began to weaken politically around 2000, political threats from a vibrant opposition MDC automatically forced the military to jump to the rescue of their former liberation movement," he said.
Analysts say the partisan role of the military in politics is a threat to reform and transition to democracy. However, another political analyst Alexander Rusero said the problem is not the security forces but political manipulation. "Mugabe is employing Machiavellian politics in which he does not want to rein in the security sector because this will lead to his downfall," Rusero said. "He has created a patronage network and a situation of an interdependent relationship between politicians and military commanders."
Analysts say the reason reforms are needed in the security sector is that, military commanders are not only violating the constitution and laws, but their own vision and core values which include professionalism and integrity".