The simmering political crisis in Zimbabwe reached a boiling point early Wednesday as the military took control in Harare, confining 93-year-old leader Robert Mugabe to house arrest. But where that quick escalation will take Zimbabwe remains unclear.
Military officials have insisted Wednesday’s events do not constitute a coup. “We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover," said Major General Sibusiso Moyo, addressing the nation in the early morning hours after taking control of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. "We are only targeting criminals around [Mugabe] who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice,” he said. Moyo spoke of a “return to normalcy” expected “as soon as we have accomplished our mission”.
“These are internal tensions, tensions within one same party [Mugabe’s ZANU-PF], within instances of the army. That’s why it is difficult to talk about this as a coup d’état. These are rivalries within the circles closest to Robert Mugabe,” reports Caroline Dumay, FRANCE 24’s South Africa correspondent. “It has been weeks, months and years that there have been rivalries.”
Indeed, setting aside the semantics of Wednesday’s power grab, observers suggest Wednesday’s military moves were not entirely unforeseeable in Zimbabwe’s burgeoning crisis of authority under a nonagenarian leader showing his age. The last straw, they say, was the ouster of Zimbabwe’s vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, whom Mugabe fired last week, accusing his longtime associate of plotting to conquer power through witchcraft. Mnangagwa’s sacking was widely seen to be Mugabe paving a path to power for his 52-year-old wife, Grace.
Portrait: Emmerson Mnangagwa
Mugabe has held power since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980. But in recent years, a factional battle has raged within the physically diminished president’s ZANU-PF as rivals angled to succeed him. A powerful strata of senior party members nicknamed the G40 rallied around his first lady, while military veterans of the liberation war broke ranks to support Mnangagwa.
The latest events mark the first time the military, historically a pillar of Mugabe’s regime, has openly defied the aging strongman, an iconic leader of Zimbabwe’s bloody war of liberation from white minority rule.
On Monday, Zimbabwe Army commander Constantino Chiwenga threatened to “step in” to stem the purge of his ZANU-PF allies. The ruling party responded by accusing Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct”.
“Zimbabwe’s political system is a ritualized game founded on the clashing of rival factions,” Daniel Compagnon, a professor at Sciences Po Bordeaux, told FRANCE 24. “All of the ZANU-PF’s bigwigs, including the soldiers who captured power [on Wednesday], are cut from that same mold; they consider that they secured independence and that power belongs to them,” said Compagnon, author of “A Predictable Tragedy: Robert Mugabe and the Collapse of Zimbabwe”.
Known as “The Crocodile", 75-year-old Mnangagwa was long one of Mugabe’s most trusted allies. The pair met in prison during the independence struggle and remained close for half a century. Mnangagwa had served in every administration since independence, including four years as defence minister from 2009 to 2013. He was named vice president in 2014 after Joice Mujuru was ousted as Mugabe’s deputy. She, too, had been accused of plotting to unseat Mugabe, then 90.
“Mugabe has stayed in power notably by orchestrating internal struggles and playing these factions against one another. But today, due to his senility, his diminishing physical capacities, and the degradation of the economic and social situation, he seems to have let go of the reins,” Compagnon added.
International Crisis Group’s Piers Pigou wrote Tuesday, shortly before the Mugabes were confined, that the leader had “supported his wife’s controversial foray into the political battlefield, where she has been effectively promoting his political interests”. But, Pigou contended, “He is aware that she is not popular and that such a blatant dynastic move may well galvanise the fragmented opposition, as well as disgruntled elements within ZANU-PF.”
A uniquely Zimbabwean coup d'etat. But will Mugabe facilitate a veneer of legality to the forthcoming handover of power? And what will that power configuration look like and how inclusive will it be?Piers Pigou (@PiersPigou) November 15, 2017
After nearly four decades of Mugabe rule, where Wednesday’s escalation leaves the country remains unclear. But observers suggest that we may not have seen the last of the only leader many Zimbabweans have ever known.
“We cannot tell how developments in Zimbabwe will play out in the days ahead and we do not know whether this marks the downfall of Mugabe or not,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told his country’s parliament on Wednesday.
In a note late on Tuesday, after armoured personnel carriers had been seen rolling into Harare, John Campbell, a senior fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, speculated that “if the military does make a move, it would likely strip Mugabe of power but could still keep him as its figurehead.”
Stephen Chan, of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, similarly predicted on social media on Wednesday that Mugabe will retain a role. “A polite coup, bloodless so far, notwithstanding an ‘accident’ or two to come; Mnangagwa will return to be effective president to Figurehead Mugabe; it will be acclaimed by the Party Congress,” Chan, who had been cool on the prospect of a coup over the weekend, speculated in a tweet.
"But the economy will be harder to fix”, he warned.