MEMBERS of Parliament on Wednesday cornered the acting leader of government business in the National Assembly, Felix Mhona, and deputy Finance minister Clemence Chiduwa over an unfulfilled promise made to the millatry in 2020 for construction of garrison shops in barracks to serve soldiers with cheap basic food commodities.
In a post-cabinet briefing to journalists in Harare on 26 February 2020, Finance and Economic Development minister Mthuli Ncube said the cantonment shops would enable military personnel to be “issued with a card or credit limit to buy what they want monthly”.
At that time, Zimbabweans, particularly civil servants, were enduring one of the worst economic crises characterised by acute shortages of fuel, electricity, foreign currency and basic goods like maize-meal as well as cooking oil. Ncube’s promise to introduce garrison shops was calculated at pacifying the soldiers who were increasingly becoming restive. Zimbabwe’s year-on-year inflation was as high as 525% at the time.
Two years before the promise, Ncube had introduced austerity measures he said were going to boost the economy, but his interventions turned out to be ruinous to public sector workers, and the military which had staged a coup to topple Robert Mugabe in 2017.
Junior and middle-ranked military personnel, who had hoped to be rewarded for staging the coup that ushered in President Emmerson Mnangagwa, were left grumbling as economic harships mounted.
However, three years later, the government has not opened the promised garrison shops, prompting MPs to raise questions on Wednesday in the National Assembly.
Opposition MDC-A proportional representation MP for Midlands Catherine Gozho kicked off the grilling of Mhona and Chiduwa. Mhona is also Transport minister.
“My question is directed to the minister of Defence and War Veterans. Since the honourable minister is not here, I will direct it to the leader of government business. In 2020, government promised to build garrison shops in barracks so that the military personnel can buy basic commodities at low prices. Have the garrison shops since been constructed like you promised?” she asked.
In his first response, Mhona, who was standing in for Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi and leader of government business, said: “The honourable member is so passionate about the welfare of the military and she asked whether the garrison shops have been built.”
“What I would want to explain to the august House is, the garrison shops may not have been constructed as expected, but government has ensured that the security forces are well looked after. I think the honourable minister for Defence and War Veterans will explain to the august House the important aspects concerning the welfare of the forces so that we understand what has been done.”
The Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) MP for Mbizo constituency, Settlement Chikwinya, followed up with another enquiry.
“My understanding is that there are some barracks with existing garrison shops. The government’s promise at that time was to supply these garrison shops with subsidised commodities?” he queried, before Speaker Jacob Mudenda said: “Is it your understanding or knowledge?”
Chikwinya responded and turned the heat on deputy Finance minister Chiduwa.
“Knowledge. Understanding based on knowledge and I speak of 5.1 Battalion, that is Battlefields … So, they have garrison shops.”
“The undertaking by government was to supply these garrison shops with subsidised basic commodities so that soldiers could buy at subsidised prices.”
“That undertaking was made by the minister of Finance. I would want to know from the deputy minister of Finance here present whether the present garrison shops that are already there are supplied with subsidised basic commodities so that at least soldiers can buy at subsidised prices,” asked Chikwinya.
In response, Chiduwa shifted the blame to the Defence ministry led by Oppah Muchinguri, but was interjected by other MPs.
“On this issue, ministry of Finance provides the resources but in terms of implementation, it is done by the parent ministry. At the moment, I am not sure if they have done it, otherwise. I would still need to check because the provisions were approved here in Parliament, so I would need to check if there was a budget for the garrison shops,” he said.
The matter was put to an end by Mudenda who held back more questions from MPs by saying Chiduwa needed more time to go and investigate the issue of the garrison shops in barracks before getting back to Parliament with a conclusive response.
“The answer by the honourable deputy minister is adequate. Let him go and find out what exactly the position is and come back to the august House,” said Mudenda.
Last year, independent Norton MP Temba Mliswa also cornered Muchinguri-Kashiri over the poor welfare of rank-and-file soldiers, saying they were supposed to get improved income from profits made in military companies like Rusununguko Inkululeko.
Mliswa told Parliament that junior soldiers were suffering in the barracks yet their seniors were enjoying comfortable lives from income raked in from military companies like Rusununguko Nkululeko (Private) Holdings.
The military company is the brainchild of the late Foreign Affairs minister Sibusiso Moyo and has vast investments in various sectors of the economy, including in the media after getting a television licence to operate its NRTV station.
Mliswa took on Muchinguri-Kashiri over the business entity which symbolises the opaque commercialisation of the military whose financial owners have gone unscrutinised.
The army also has other income-generating projects like the Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI), but the profits realised do not trickle down to rank-and-file soldiers.