In recent months the issue of security sector reform has moved to the center of talks within Zimbabwe's chronically troubled power sharing government.
The Movement for Democratic Change formation of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai says a democratic transition cannot be achieved through free and fair elections if the military, the police and other security services continue to meddle in the process.
The phrase security sector reform has become highly politically charged, however, with ZANU-PF officials bristling over the perceived slight to the liberation heritage and, where regional mediation is concerned, the perceived violation of national sovereignty.
Zimbabwe’s constitution says the army, police and Central Intelligence Organization, must be non-partisan with allegiance to no single party but to the nation as a whole.
Since Zimbabwe's national unity government was formed in February 2009, both formations of the MDC have hoped for more accountability on the part of the military, but to little avail. So the two former opposition parties are pressing now for reforms.
Civil society also says such reform is essential before the next elections are held.
Various service chiefs and senior officers have made what some see as unconstitutional - even treasonous - statements regarding Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the outcome of eventual national elections. Yet President Robert Mugabe and Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa say Zimbabwe’s military is above reproach.
Thus security sector reform is a key point of dispute in drawing up the election road map that South African President Jacob Zuma as mediator in Harare is expected to present to SADC this week. But it is not entirely clear what proponents of reform really want.
Jameson Timba, a minister of state in the prime minister’s office, says reform has more to do with the attitudes of senior military branch commanders than with the law.
MDC formation leader Welshman Ncube says the security sector is an armed wing of ZANU-PF, and this cannot continue. He says Zimbabwe’s laws on the military are like those of other nations, but politicians have abused the defense forces.
Retired Major Cairo Mhandu, ZANU-PF lawmaker for Mazowe North and a member of the parliamentary committee on defense, dismissed demands for reform, saying it is unnecessary as the Defense Act and Police Act offer sufficient safeguards. He says the MDC is pushing reform as a means to remove certain service chiefs.
Proponents of reform say the 2008 Global Political Agreement for power sharing states that security forces took a partisan role in the last elections.
Martin Rupiya, executive director of the Africa Public Policy and Research Institute, says the pact stipulated the need for reform and recommended the passage of an Intelligence Act. But he adds that its signatories have reinterpreted parts of the agreement.
The GPA signatories also agreed to set up the National Security Council to oversee the national security establishment. But Ncube says that “regrettably” the National Security Council wields little authority, while the Joint Operations Command of senior military, police and intelligence officials continues to function clandestinely.
The two MDC formations and other observers say the main obstacle or threat to the unity government and to an eventual democratic transition is the security sector elite whose terms have been unilaterally extended by President Mugabe.
Rupiya notes that many African countries following liberation placed their military under civilian control. Even in the Southern African region where liberation was a relatively recent process, countries like South Africa are now more focused on development issues and maintain small military establishments. But Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle has been personalized and senior military officials answer only to President Mugabe.
Executive Director Gabriel Shumba of the South African-based Zimbabwe Exiles Forum said ZANU-PF's refusal to discuss reform can only further delay elections, and therefore SADC, guarantor of power sharing with the African Union, should intervene.
But ZANU-PF says SADC should not meddle in the military affairs of a member nation.
Mhandu said the contentious issue should be referred to the parliamentary committee on home affairs and defense. But Ncube said the president as the commander in chief must demand that senior military officers heed the laws regarding their conduct.
Otherwise, Ncube maintained, SADC has the right and the means to pressure Harare on this issue. Critics say little of substance has been achieved through SADC mediation in Zimbabwe. But Rupiya believes the regional grouping remains fully engaged.
This week’s summit may reveal the extent to which SADC leaders are willing to push Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF to reform the military to allow free and fair elections.