The Sunday Mail
One of the novelties of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Cabinet appointments on September 7 last year was the designation of Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri as the Minister of Defence and War Veterans Affairs. It marked the first time a woman has been appointed to the onerously weighty portfolio. The Sunday Mail Senior Reporter Lincoln Towindo engaged her on her experiences thus far and some of the programmes she is currently pursuing.
Q: You have been Defence Minister for nearly nine months now. Can you take us through your experiences so far, in terms of how you have handled this crucial portfolio?
A: The Defence and War Veterans (Ministry) is a critical portfolio which requires one to take keen interest in understanding the entire sector as it is a total departure from administration of civilian ministries, which I served under in my previous experience. In this new critical sector, all decisions are made collectively, meaning to say extensive consultations are made before reaching any decision, and from time to time – because my powers are delegated powers from His Excellency the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces as prescribed by the Constitution – I normally seek his Excellency’s indulgence and guidance before reaching any conclusion.
Q: Being Zimbabwe’s first female Defence Minister, how have you navigated your way through a sector that is largely male-dominated?
A: It is indeed an undeniable fact that this sector is largely male-dominated, but I would like to make it known to the entire nation that these males are progressive males who respect women and view them as equals. Even during the liberation struggle, women shared trenches with men and they treated women with absolute respect, meaning to say we were entirely the same. These are the true gender values of the liberation struggle and I would like to commend all my male counterparts in the Ministry of Defence and War Veterans Affairs for upholding these values and putting them into practice in a free and democratic Zimbabwe.
The men in my ministry are men of quality who are not afraid of equality and this is evidenced by the support they not only give to me, but the deliberate implementation of affirmative action in our recruitment policy, which will see more females receiving training and landing higher posts as we strive to be exemplary in implementing the 50/50 representation and parity principle.
Q: How has your experience as a former liberation war fighter helped in executing your mandate?
A: My experience as a former liberation war fighter has to a greater extent helped me in executing my mandate. As I have alluded to before, I was with most of the male commanders in the war of liberation and we all shared the same values, ethics and principles we were taught in the liberation war – of servant leadership, collective decision-making and being a people-centred Defence Force.
This is what I am still carrying over to this day and will never compromise on that area. Furthermore, I am pleased to inform you that our veterans of the liberation struggle are geared towards taking the lead in making our country productive again, promoting patriotism in current and future generations. These are intrinsic values which were imparted to us during the war of liberation.
Q: Since last year’s election, Zimbabwe has experienced occasional violent protests largely fomented by some opposition parties and their allies; at times threatening the country’s internal security. What is the current state of the country’s security situation given the perpetual threats of violence?
A: I do not read too much into threats of violence by the opposition political outfits and their allies. My view is that threats are aimed at disrupting Government programmes and drawing international attention in order to maintain political relevance in the country’s political life away from elections. Government should, therefore, not be distracted from its programmes and developmental activities by attention-seekers trying to keep our country in a perpetual election mode until the next general election in 2023.
The state of the country’s situation is, therefore, peaceful in spite of the isolated cases of politically motivated violence and social media-driven threats.
Q: How prepared is the local security apparatus to deal with both internal and external security threats?
A: The Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) posture on national defence and security is defensive in nature; hence, the organisation trains to meet both internal and external security threats. As the security situation evolves, the ZDF trains to ensure that they are ready to deal with any emerging threats.
Q: There seems to be an attempt to besmirch the image of the Zimbabwe National Army by some non-governmental organisations and political parties. What is currently being done to improve military-civil relations?
A: Judging from the negative private press reports, including adverse social media reports, it is true that frantic efforts are being made by opposition political parties, supported by some non-governmental organisations, to tarnish the good image of the ZDF. Despite these detractions, the ZDF have continued to discharge their mandate internally and internationally very well. They are doing everything in their power to maintain a good image through improving the civil-military relations as they engage in a number of community-related projects throughout the year. Some of these are: ZDF Day celebrations, participation in schools’ career days, provincial and national shows and countrywide assistance projects and programmes.
Q: We witnessed the ZNA doing a lot of work during the Cyclone Idai disaster in terms of assisting affected communities. What really was the scope of the army’s involvement and how did they serve the affected communities?
A: The ZDF were the first to respond to Cyclone Idai disaster when it struck and caused massive destruction mainly in Chimanimani and Chipinge districts. Arrival of the ZDF elements in the disaster area signalled hope for the Cyclone Idai victims with the beginning of search, rescue and provision of the much-needed relief to those affected. The ZDF went on to provide helicopter air support for marooned victims, medical treatment, food relief, clothing and shelter for the victims.
The scope of the ZDF participation in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai was huge in terms of personnel and equipment. At the peak of the operation, the ZDF had more than a brigade deployed. Currently, 3 Infantry Brigade and other ZDF specialist elements are still deployed in the Cyclone Idai affected areas providing post-disaster relief support to the victims. The support includes road repair and other infrastructure development projects and programmes.
Q: The ZNA is also known for doing a lot of work in communities, including building schools and clinics. Which major projects is the military undertaking at the moment?
A: The ZDF is engaged in a variety of community assistance projects across the country throughout the year. The organisation only highlights the completed and ongoing projects in July and August each year as a precursor to the ZDF Day Celebrations.
Some of the completed and near-completed projects to be handed over this year include the Katema Clinic in Gokwe South, a classroom block at Mpopoma High School in Bulawayo, a boys’ hostel at Rusununguko High School in Goromonzi district of Mashonaland East and many others.
Q: The country’s borders are largely considered porous. What is the military doing to properly secure them?
A: The ZDF effectively conducts border control and surveillance together with other security agents. The population should, therefore, feel safe to go about their day-to-day activities without fear from external threats. However, those who engage in cross-border smuggling face arrest by the troops on border control operations.
Q: Can you give us an outline of our current peacekeeping missions?
A: The ZDF has important deployments of its officers in both the AU and UN peacekeeping missions, including the key appointment of the Chief of Staff( African Standby Force) Major-General Trust Mugova at the AU Headquarters in Ethiopia. Both AU and EU deployments have been undertaken by the ZDF since its formative years in the 80s.
The deployed ZDF officers have continuously performed exceptionally well since then.
Current deployments in peacekeeping missions under the AU and UN include those in South Sudan, Abyei, Central Africa Republic, Somalia, Darfur, AU headquarters in Ethiopia and the UN headquarters in New York.
Q: President Mnangagwa has been promising to improve the welfare of the country’s war veterans. What has your ministry done in this regard?
A: The Ministry of Defence and War Veterans Affairs is mandated in Sections 3,23 and 84 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe to provide welfare services and economic empowerment to the veterans of the liberation struggle.
Section 84(2) of the Constitution gave birth to the following Acts and Statutory Instruments: War Veterans Act, Chapter 11.15, as amended at 1st October 2004, and Statutory Instrument 281 of 1987 plus the Ex-Political Prisoners, Detainees and Restrictees Act(Chapter 17.10) and Statutory Instrument 194 of 2005. The two Acts and supporting Statutory Instruments are the source legal documents applied in the provision of welfare benefits to the veterans of the liberation struggle.
It is imperative to note that currently the Government is seized with the realignment of the laws to the Constitution to create one Act which should include the other categories of the veterans who had been omitted. These are those who assisted the fighters in the war of liberation (that is; the war collaborators and others who qualify as defined in Section (1) of the Constitution).
Section 84(1) of the Constitution entitles the veterans to due recognition for their contribution to the liberation of Zimbabwe and to suitable welfare such as pensions and access to basic health care.
The key statutory benefits for veterans, according to the War Veterans Act and Ex-Political Prisoners, Detainees and Restrictees Act are: the educational assistance benefit, the medical assistance benefit and the funeral benefit.
Government is committed to ensuring that war veterans and their dependent children have access to education in secondary schools as well as Government tertiary, vocational and university institutions through the payment of their education expenses. In this regard, it is pleasing to note that fees for 2017 and 2018 were paid in full. First Term fees for 2019 have been paid and those for the Second Term are currently being processed. The educational assistance benefit is a key element in the welfare of war veterans, most of whom are not gainfully employed. The total annual bill for this assistance is about $20 million dollars per year in local currency. . .
With age, the war veterans are increasingly succumbing to various ailments, some needing specialised treatments, arising from the conditions in which they lived and fought.
Health is, therefore, another important concern and the Government will continue to ensure that it gets the attention it deserves. War veterans and their dependents are entitled to free medical service in Government hospitals, and Government also pays private service providers where Government institutions cannot provide the required service. Government expenditure on medical assistance for war veterans has been increasing quite dramatically of late.
In 2017, the medical bill, including hospital bills, was about $700 000. In 2018, it rose to $1,3 million, while this year (May 2019) the bill has already ballooned to approximately $920 000. Government will continue to prioritise health provision to war veterans so that they continue to play a pivotal role in the life of the country.
Another important welfare benefit is funeral assistance.
The State is obliged to ensure that when a war veteran passes on, he or she is given a decent send-off. In short, the State must ensure a decent funeral. In this regard, Government provides an amount that it considers adequate for a decent send-off. This amount is reviewed from time to time to suit prevailing costs for the undertaker, coffin, food and transport, etcetera.
Because of distances and certain circumstances, some war veterans only access this benefit after the funeral, which defeats its purpose.
We are currently looking at partnering funeral houses that are capable of reacting promptly to a funeral so that the services are provided timeously. Discussions and consultations with various funeral houses are underway as we speak.
Section 23(2) of the Constitution obliges the State to take reasonable measures, including legislative measures for the welfare and economic empowerment of the veterans of the liberation struggle.
Also, Government introduced a deliberate policy by reserving a 20 percent quota in all land allocations during the land reform programme, resulting in many veterans benefiting from the programme.
The beneficiaries have always been prioritised in Government’s agricultural programmes such as “Maguta”, Command Agriculture and Command Livestock.
In response to the plight of the veterans and as part of efforts to alleviate poverty, Government has embarked on a deliberate policy to extend the 20 percent quota system to cover all sectors of the economy. . .
The Ministry of Defence and War Veterans Affairs, as part of the initiative to generate income for the welfare and economic empowerment of the veterans, has established a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) registered in terms of the laws of Zimbabwe as a private limited enterprise with investments in mining, tourism and hospitality, commodity broking and plans to venture into other sectors of the economy.
The SPV, in order to tap into the Government programme of devolution of power, is in the process of establishing provincial strategic business units. The company also provides employment for the veterans and their dependants.
The SPV is 100 percent owned by the Veterans Fund and income generated is channelled towards improving the welfare services and economic empowerment projects.
In conclusion, the Ministry of Defence and War Veterans Affairs remains committed within available resources to improve the welfare of the veterans of the liberation struggle and will always endeavour to exploit the available economic opportunities to generate the requisite income to alleviate their poverty. Government efforts must not be seen as a one-time event, but an ongoing process directed towards alleviating poverty amongst the veterans.