Zimbabwean opposition leaders yesterday appealed to Britain to maintain its small but controversial military presence in the country because they believe it acts as a moral safeguard against coups in an increasingly volatile political climate.
The shadow foreign secretary, Francis Maude, last week called for Britain to withdraw the top training team, in the light of Zimbabwe's continuing military involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo and what he called "the ethnic cleansing'' of white farmers.
But the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said the British presence was "a guarantee that we will be able to maintain a democratic government''.
From offices inside the Zimbabwe Defence Force (ZDF) headquarters in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, 10 senior British officers train southern African peace-keepers. Funded by the Foreign Office to the tune of £1.6m a year, the troops are a modernised version of the British team which oversaw the transformation of Zimbabwean guerrillas into a professional force at the end of white rule in 1980.
Eddie Cross, a former head of the Confederation of Zimbabwean Industry who is now a senior member of the MDC, said: "Twenty years of British presence have given us a professional army that is going to take its cue from a constitutional change of power. We must not at this point suspend British military co-operation.
"What the British did in the past and the fact that they are still here is as crucial to our democratic development as was the work of northern Europeans, initially through the trade unions, towards building a powerful civic society in a one-party state,'' he said.
But critics of the Zimbabwe government claim that the ZDF, almost all of whose top officers were trained at Sandhurst or Camberley in the UK, has too prominent a role.
Lupi Mushayakarara, an opposition activist outside the MDC, believes no amount of training in peace-keeping and democratic accountability will annihilate the killer instinct.
Others, such as Brian Raftopoulos, a lecturer at the Centre For Development Studies in Harare, point to a creeping coup, that is already under way. "Military figures are being appointed to civil service jobs, including the prisons, national parks, the oil parastatal and the police. There may not be an outright coup but we are seeing a loss of civil legitimacy,'' he said.
To Lieutenant Colonel Gary Donaldson, chief of staff at the British Military Advisory and Training Team (BMATT), such fears may be exaggerated. "What we have seen of the Zimbabwean military is impressive. This is one of the best armies in Africa. The appointments may just be choices aimed at rooting out bad practice,'' he said.
BMATT argues that it ended all bilateral training with the ZDF as soon as 11,000 of its men were sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo where they have been fighting to keep Laurent Kabila in power since August 1998. As the British officers' role has switched in the past four years to training peace-keepers across southern Africa, they claim they have remained in Harare for historical reasons. But given the present state of British diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe, the continued presence of their offices inside Harare's defence headquarters seems, at best, ill-advised. Nevertheless, despite claims from President Robert Mugabe that Britain is among foreign powers plotting his downfall, BMATT has not been asked to move out.
"The only change in our relations with the Zimbabweans was that they were apparently instructed not to come to a drinks party we held. The links are generally open and friendly, to the extent that our disapproval of their involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo can be discussed openly,'' said Lt-Col Donaldson.
Members of the British team are also aware, though they are loath to discuss it, that their presence may be a stabilising force. The team's commander, Brigadier Vere Hayes, believes a withdrawal of BMATT would be "seen as a significant act of abandonment''. Privately, they add that if the situation in Zimbabwe were to deteriorate, they would be in a position to help UK nationals.
In Harare, where Zimbabwean warrant officers carry pace sticks, the foot drills are British and soldiers wear stable belts imported from Blighty, Lt-Col Donaldson is himself picking up some African ways.
"I have served in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. Yet here I am learning bush skills and broadening my military experience by working with soldiers from African countries,'' he said.