AN unsettled President Emmerson Mnangagwa, seeking to strengthen his grip on power and coup-proof his regime, has yet again changed commanders of the Presidential Guard (PG), the infantry battalion which, together with the Mechanised Brigade, played a critical role in the 2017 military coup that toppled former president Robert Mugabe.
The PG, responsible for providing protection to the president and securing Harare, is a specialised force trained to fight in built up areas. It consists of two battalions, the 1 PG Battalion commonly known as State House Battalion and the 2 PG Battalion situated in Dzivaresekwa.
Then under Brigadier-General Anselem Sanyatwe — who was commander of the coup on the ground and seen as loyal to Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga — the unit played the most important role in the military operation that catapulted Mnangagwa to power.
Chiwenga was the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces during the coup. He was Mnangagwa’s ally, but their relationship deteriorated after the coup, as they differed on government appointments and transitional arrangements, among other issues.
Mnangagwa has, however, been strengthening his grip on power since the coup by removing both high-level and middle-level commanders who played a role in the coup as part of a strategy to contain Chiwenga, who harbours presidential ambitions.
A fortnight ago, Chiwenga’s estranged wife, Marry, disclosed in court papers that her husband has presidential ambitions. Military sources revealed that Mnangagwa last month made changes in the PG by naming Lieutenant-Colonel (Lt-Col) Chicha as the commander of 2 PG Battalion.
Chicha took over from Lt-Col Regis Mangezi, who was moved to command the 1 PG Battalion following the elbowing out of Lt-Col Solomon Murombo from the unit.
Murombo was in the news in July last year after an audio recording of an enraged First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa was leaked. Mnangagwa’s wife accused Murombo of spying on her and plotting to kill the President. Her outburst betrayed the first family’s fears and concerns about their security. Murombo has been shunted off to Zimbabwe Defence House.
The PG Brigade is under the command of Brigadier-General Fidelis Mhonda, who took over from Sanyatwe. Following the coup, Sanyatwe was initially promoted to the rank of major-general before he was retired from the military and posted to Tanzania as Zimbabwe’s ambassador. During the coup days, the 1 PG Battalion was commanded by Lt-Col Never Jones Makuyana, who was promoted to the rank of Colonel and appointed Mnangagwa’s Aide de Camp. Like Murombo, Makuyana was transferred to Defence House although he is reportedly not out of favour.
At Mechanised Brigade, Brigadier-General Gwekwerere — who headed the Mechanised Brigade during Operation Restore Legacy — was in June last year reassigned to the post of brigadier-general in charge of general staff at Army Headquarters.
The Commanding Officer of 1 Mechanised Battalion during the coup, Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Dube, handed over the command of the unit to Lt-Col Colleen Mafika in January 2018, as Mnangagwa got rid of key coup players.
Military officials revealed that the fact that both the 1 PG and the 2 PG battalions have each had three separate commanders since the November 2017 coup was an indication of Mnangagwa’s insecurity. A number of low-ranking officers from the Dzivaresekwa-based battalion have also been transferred to 1 PG while those that were at 2 PG were transferred to 1 PG. Military sources told the Zimbabwe Independent that the latest changes were part of the ongoing drive by Mnangagwa to coup-proof his regime, while whittling down Chiwenga’s influence.
“In the case of the Presidential Guards, Sanyatwe is believed to have had a lot of influence particularly at 2PG (Dzivaresekwa) where he stayed for many years as he rose through the ranks until he commanded the brigade,” a security source said.
“The chops and changes are meant to dilute that influence. Initially after the coup, Mnangagwa’s restructuring of the army was seen as a way to reward commanders who played key roles in the coup. But the promotions were also used to remove some powerful commanders, like Sanyatwe, out of key positions so that they are not able to be the backbone of Chiwenga’s presidential bid.”
Members of the military at 2 PG also said members of the Regimental Police who control movement in and out of the barrack are also now being periodically shifted.
The Independent last week asked ZDF spokesperson Overson Mugwisi to explain what was necessitating the sweeping changes being instituted in the command element of the Presidential Guard.
He referred the paper to Major Alex Zuva in charge of the Zimbabwe National Army communications department. Zuva requested questions in writing, but had not responded by the time of going to press.
In 2018, Mnangagwa, then seeking to rid the army of elements perceived loyal to Mugabe as well as Chiwenga, promoted a number of senior officers including Sanyatwe, thereby removing him from the PG. He also promoted the Head of Military Intelligence Thomas Moyo from Brigadier-General to Major-General.
Last year, Mnangagwa retired several top commanders by shunting them off into the diplomatic service. These included former Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) chief-of-staff (administration) Douglas Nyikayaramba, chief-of-staff responsible for service personnel and logistics Major-General Martin Chedondo, and Air Vice-Marshal Sheba Shumbayawonda.
The latest changes, as reported by this newspaper in its exclusive series of articles around the state of affairs within the army, come at a time the millitary is engulfed by growing discontent among the rank-and-file troops over the worsening economic environment and poor remuneration.
Also, as part of the coup-proofing measures, Mnangagwa has elevated commanders from his ethnic Karanga clan, mostly from the Midlands, to the top echelons of most security organisations.
The Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) is now under the command of Phillip Valerio Sibanda, while the Air Force of Zimbabwe is being commanded by Elson Moyo. Both are from the Midlands, Mnangagwa’s home province.
The Zimbabwe National Army is under the command of Lieutenant-General Edzai Chimonyo, also a Mnangagwa ally from Masvingo.Mnangagwa appointed his close Midlands ally, Owen Ncube, as State Security minister. Ncube oversees the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), which is under the control of another Midlands ally, Isaac Moyo.