On Tuesday, Zimbabweans will commemorate Zimbabwe Defence Forces’ Day to celebrate the role played by the country’s uniformed forces in protecting and guaranteeing the country’s sovereignty. Last week, Zimpapers Television Network (ZTN) had a wide-ranging interview with ZDF Commander General Philip Valerio Sibanda.
Question: We know your military side, can you just touch a little bit on your civilian side?
Answer: I don’t have a civilian side, there is very little of that within me. I joined the military when I was very young and I have been in the military ever since.
Q: Do you have a hobby, maybe football?
A: I watch football a bit when the national team is playing and they are winning; once they start losing, I lose interest.
Q: You fought the liberation struggle side-by-side with some of our heroes, what is the significance of the Heroes and Defence Forces Day in our calendar?
A: Each and every nation has got its own history and Defence Forces’ Day, Heroes’ Day, they are all part of our history. And we celebrate the work that was done by our heroes during the liberation struggle, whether they were active participants or they were supporters. But we also take time to remember them over the Heroes’ Day, and of course for defence holidays we just have to associate with our people and once again to get our people to understand who we are, where we came from and so on. And we look into the future together with them because we are a people’s defence force.
Q: Do you have any lingering memories from the struggle?
A: There are many, but they are not good ones unfortunately. They are about the harshness, the ferocity of the struggle, the many deaths and so on. So, yes, they are there but they are not memories that you really want to keep recycling — the brain tends to push into some corner those things that you don’t want to continue to remember — but, yes, there are a lot of memories indeed.
Q: The Zimbabwe Defence Forces played a major role in ushering in the Second Republic in November 2017, was that intervention necessary?
A: Well, I think the people of Zimbabwe are the best judges on that, I think we had gotten to a point where if we had continued, something was going to happen, something bad was going to happen and so, yes, that intervention was necessary, but, like I said, the people of this country can judge us best.
Q: In response to the August 1 2018 events, the Motlanthe Commission recommended, among other things, that action should be taken against the soldiers who are alleged to have shot at civilians. Has that been done, what is the progress on that?
A: Well, we continue with investigations, some action has been taken but we continue with investigations to establish whether there were any of our members who actually shot civilians. Like I said during the commission, there was a third hand at play in the disturbances of the 1st of August last year. This is why there was a report that some shots were fired from some buildings and I think that is ample proof to show that there was a third hand at play. And yes, we have not allowed our soldiers, the culprits to go scot-free, we still want to establish who exactly did it because what I don’t want to do as a Commander is to punish a soldier for something they didn’t do. So I need to be definite that this is the individual who did this and then we will deal with them.
Q: So you are saying that if you did find out that they did something — some of your soldiers — you will take action?
A: Definitely, they will certainly be taken to book.
Mass demonstrations are allowed under the Constitution of Zimbabwe. The question most people are asking is under what circumstances should the army be called in to solve issues of mass demonstrations?
If the demonstrations are peaceful, we don’t get called in and we will not interfere with peaceful demonstrations, peaceful petitions and so on — we will not interfere. If you will recall sometime before the elections last year, the opposition called for demonstrations and they walked through town and we were sitting here and they went past Government offices and went round and round and we did not take any action because it was peaceful. What is wrong is to abuse the Constitution, where it says you are allowed to demonstrate. The Constitution is very clear, I think Section 59, it says you are allowed to demonstrate, you are allowed to petition provided it is peaceful, and that is the keyword — peaceful. When people start going around town burning, looting and so on, that is no longer peaceful and won’t be allowed to happen because now you are interfering with other people’s freedoms and you are also destroying other people’s properties and that is anarchy, we can’t allow that.
Q: And you being called in would be about the President, for example, President Mnangagwa deciding, given the situation on the ground?
A: Yes, he is the Commander-in-Chief and he is the ultimate in terms of giving that order.
Q: General, when you took office you intimated that you wanted to promote a people’s army. How far have you gone with that dream or the realisation of a people’s army?
A: We have made quite some good progress in the sense that we have extended our activities to almost all parts of this country in terms of visibility, in terms of projects, in terms of getting them to be part of the defence force by bringing in their own children. This is why we are working on a quota per province to make sure that each province has got some of its children in the military. We have done quite a bit in that area.
Q: Your idea, of course, is to make people believe in the army and to know that it is part of them. Is this the concept of the people’s army?
A: Well, from the liberation struggle that was the belief. You cannot fight a war without the people’s support. Go to any country today, they want the people to be with them because that way, you have the moral support. You also have the strength required in terms of doing what you are supposed to do.
Q: Some critics would say that the force is heavy-handed, what would be your comment to that?
A: I am not sure whether this relates to the incidence of the 1st of August last year and the 14th of January, but really we have not been heavy-handed. We have only responded in a manner that allows the situation to be brought to normalcy in the shortest possible time. It is unfortunate that lives have been lost in the process, but you cannot allow a situation of anarchy to prevail. That certainly is a no-no.
So the army was proportional in terms of response to what was happening at the time. That is what we did.
Q: There are some who also say that Zimbabwe is heavily militarised, what is your response?
A: I do not understand when they say Zimbabwe is heavily militarised. You know we are Zimbabweans. We come from the people, we retire from the military and we go back to the people to become civilians. Yes, we retain our titles and so on but we are no longer serving. So when I go, I have got my qualifications and I go looking for a job and get taken in by some Government department, that does not mean that I am an extension of the military in that Government department. In any case, which country on earth does not take retired members of the military in its governance structures? Which one? If anyone can give me an answer, then maybe I can agree with this assertion, but otherwise I do not.
Q: Zimbabweans appear to be currently divided, very much divided along political lines. What role do you think the Zimbabwe Defence Forces can play to foster unity, the feeling that Zimbabweans are together and united, just like it was during the liberation struggle?
A: We are playing our part as the defence force through the main projects that I have already talked about, the activities that we are doing in the countryside. Also, we feel that these divisions that are rocking people today are counterproductive and so on. For us, we do not see the people of this country to say this is an MDC fellow, this is Zanu-PF, no! We see Zimbabweans and we would like to promote that and whatever we do, we try and make sure that we do not segregate. When we are, for example, asked by Government to work with communities, do food distribution and things like that, we do not choose. We allow people in the community to get the same share of food that they are entitled to. So we would want to see our people united because when united we are stronger and we stand, and divided we fall. Unfortunately, some people seem to be wanting to perpetuate divisions in the country and that is just not right.
The army commander said the one thing that I always ask myself: “When I went to the liberation struggle at a young age, we were so united. Why is it that today we are no longer united as a country in independent Zimbabwe?”
Yes, perhaps it can be politics here and there. In our Constitution, we are apolitical; that is why multi-party politics is allowed in our Constitution of Zimbabwe, we observe what will be taking place.
Q: So the army commander is saying that the army, the defence forces is apolitical, they are here for the good of the nation, is that what it is?
A: Indeed, indeed, you see people must separate the institution of the military from individuals: there can be individuals within the military who support whatever political party, but it is not the military, it is the individuals and if they go beyond what is authorised, then we deal with those individuals because we are apolitical. You see, it is like saying to people do not belong to any church because when he is in his home he will pray to his God or invite a pastor or somebody to come and pray and you cannot stop them from doing that.
Q: You talked earlier, you touched on humanitarian issues or the people issues that the defence forces do. You played a key role in rescue and recovery efforts following Cyclone Idai, a natural disaster that is unparalleled in our recent history. Where you prepared for such a disaster?
A: We were prepared for the normal disasters that we had gotten used to, but the ferocity, the intensity of Idai was something else, so from what happened we have learnt: from the need for effective early warning systems, the need for education for our people to understand that indeed some calamity is coming and take this action. There is need for maybe organisational changes to the way we respond. At the moment we have got the Civil Protection Unit, but we believe that from the experiences that we have gained from Idai, we may need to fine-tune the whole response mechanism. It was not as tidy as we would have wanted it to be.
Q: So do you think in future the ZDF will work together or try to put in place maybe committees or discussions so that when something like this happens again you will be more prepared?
A: Yes, we have made recommendations, we are hoping that we can meet with the authorities concerned so that we can discuss and maybe come up with refined methods of responding to disasters of the size and ferocity of Idai.
Q: Now, I think a lot of people don’t really understand the magnitude of what the Zimbabwe Defence Forces did, maybe you can briefly tell us the areas that the ZDF assisted our people in that disaster?
A: If you recall Cyclone Idai struck on a Friday night. The first elements of the ZDF were deployed in the early morning of Saturday. And to get to the area of the cyclone and so on, they had to walk long distances and they had to cross flooded rivers. Fortunately, we had done adequate training and some of them had to use ropes and so on to cross some of the flooded rivers and they were joined later on by other units. We were not able to fly into the area because of the mist and rain, so it was just ground-based effort into, I think, the afternoon of Sunday.
We were able to go in by air on Monday, this was after about two days and the troops that went in were very, very courageous because really here is a river that is flooded and flowing fast and in its way it brings down rocks, trees and so on but they managed to cross and got to the areas where there were people who were trapped and needed help. So yes, a lot of work was done, especially during those first two days. After that, the weather cleared and we were able to go and spread our activities to a much wider area and also we started getting assistance from various NGOs.
By and large, ZDF did very well during Cyclone Idai, but also I want to thank the people of Zimbabwe in general, those within the country and those outside the country who assisted. We saw the country getting united; unfortunately, for just that period of time, thereafter we went back to our old ways of disunity and it is unfortunate.
Q: General, can you explain the role of the ZDF in economic development?
A: Let me take you back to the early days of our independence in the 80s, we had something called OPSEED, if some of you remember. OPSEED meant Operation Soldiers Employed in Economic Development. When the demobilisation process was taking place, some of the soldiers were going into OPSEED, but others were actually in OPSEED, even before demobilisation. I am saying this because there are people in this country who think the military should not be involved in the economic development of the country. I think that is very wrong, it is an uninformed position.
Like I said earlier, we are Zimbabweans and it is in our interest to develop the country. So we will do what is necessary if we have the time and the resources to take part in the development of our country. Some people criticise, for example, command agriculture. There is nothing wrong with command agriculture and it has happened in other countries under different names, but it is still the military assisting in economic development.
Q: Some countries do, however, have the military sort of having their own industries, I think Russia is a good example where the military does have businesses. Is that the model the ZDF is employing in terms of having their own businesses?
A: Well, there are different models of the military engaging in economic activities. What we would want to do here is to produce certain products for ourselves and we will not be directly responsible as the military, but, yes, we can have companies that are run on a purely business basis for the production of the materials that we use. So different models, but we would want to see some of the products being produced by ourselves.
Q: Let us turn to the men and women in the armed forces. What initiatives is the Zimbabwe Defence Forces putting in to look after the welfare of its members because apart from the members in the army, of course, the extended families can run into millions of people? What initiatives has the ZDF taken to look after its members?
A: We are talking about the conditions of service of our members here. We, maybe, have not done well in that area in the sense that we have not been able to adequately provide for the accommodation of our troops and their dependents. Because of the economic environment, we have not been able to adequately provide for their medical cover and we have also not been able to provide for their various needs as expected. However, this is not to say nothing is being done.
There is a lot that is being done. We are working on providing Government accommodation for our officers. We had programmes running in the past, they came to a hold because there was no money. We have resuscitated these projects, especially those providing accommodation to our officers and men. We have just resuscitated this, but as individual citizens, we have been putting up accommodation for our officers countrywide. You have heard about the Zimbabwe Defence Forces Fund, which has been constructing houses all over the country.
So what happens is a member says when I retire I want to settle in this area, and when we get stands in that area, they are ticked off the list and they are provided with their houses. They can then extend the houses as they wish. So we are doing quite a bit in that area. In terms of the rest of the conditions of service, Government is working tirelessly to address this because they have been inadequate for a very long time. In fact, from the time of our independence, there has never been a time when the conditions of service have been fully met. They are at different levels of fulfilment.
Q: Finally, General Sibanda, when the time comes, how would you like Zimbabweans to remember you?
A: First, they should remember me as just another Zimbabwean. Number two, they should remember me as somebody who tried to bring more peace and stability in this country, and thirdly, they should remember me as somebody who would like to see Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Defence Forces being the cream of the cream of Southern Africa, if not the whole of Africa.
Q: I have to ask this, do you have any political ambitions at all?