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Who are the key players in Zimbabwe's power struggle?

Latest update : 17/11/2017

© AFP file photo | Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (centre) attends a rally in Harare on August 13, 2013, flanked by army chief Constantino Chiwenga (left), who ordered the veteran leader be placed under house arrest on November 15, 2017.

Article text by Anna SANSOM

Zimbabwe's military has taken control of the country, placing President Robert Mugabe, its seemingly untouchable leader for 37 years, under house arrest.

The military takeover came just days after Mugabe sacked his vice-president, Emmerson Mngangagwa, in what was widely interpreted as a way for the 93-year-old president – the oldest ruler in the world – to pave the way for his wife Grace to succeed him. This provoked the ire of the military, which supports Mnangagwa, a former security chief who is nicknamed "The Crocodile". The Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) responded quickly to Mugabe's sacking of Mnangagwa by placing the president, who has been in power since 1988, under house arrest on November 15.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Nick Branson, senior researcher at Africa Research Institute in London, about the different actors in the crisis that has hit the country.

FRANCE 24: Is the military takeover retaliation for President Mugabe sacking his vice-president, Mnangagwa?

Nick Branson: Almost certainly. There has been a dispute as to whether it's a coup d'état or not. Some analysts have called it a 'veto coup' – a military intervention to prevent Mugabe from sidelining Emmerson Mnangagwa and promoting his wife. The military are interested in managing the political transition [from Mugabe to his successor] and their primary focus is ensuring that Mnangagwa returns to the apex of power.

F24: Has the military takeover been orchestrated by Commander General Constantino Chiwenga, leader of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF)?

N.B.: Yes, as chief of the ZDF, General Chiwenga was able to mobilise the air force and the army, and prevent other parts of the security apparatus from obstructing the military takeover. He essentially neutralised Mugabe's presidential guard, as well as the police force, which was seen as being loyal to Grace Mugabe and her faction. Many in the military view Grace and her acolytes, known as the G40, supposedly in reference to their average age, as a threat to their interests. None of them fought in the national liberation war [1964-1979], and their association with crude and populist policies puts them at odds with Mnangagwa, a pragmatic veteran of the liberation struggle.

F24: Why is the ZDF targeting what it describes as "criminals" around Mugabe?

N.B.: Chiwenga was conscious of the machinations by the G40 that wanted to promote Grace Mugabe as a potential successor to Robert Mugabe. Chiwenga has effectively neutralised them, and the threat they posed. The ZDF has detained the finance minister, Ignatius Chombo, and influential higher education minister Jonathan Moyo, along with two other ministers seen as being loyal to Grace. The factionalism and divisions which we could see in Zanu-PF before the military intervention have evaporated. Parts of Zanu-PF have either stepped back from their previous statements, such as National Youth League Secretary Kudzanai Chipanga who retracted his statement against Chiwenga and the ZDF on Wednesday night, saying it had been prepared for him to read, or they have been sidelined from the political scene entirely.

F24: How is the situation evolving?

N.B.: On Friday, a majority of Zanu-PF provincial coordinating committees adopted resolutions directing the party’s central committee to recall Mugabe as president, reinstate members of the party expelled since 2014, remove Grace Mugabe as secretary of the Women’s League, and reinstate Emmerson Mnangagwa as vice-president of the party. The idea is that Mugabe would then hand over leadership of the party to Mnangagwa at the Zanu-PF special elective congress next month.

F24: How do you think the situation will evolve over the next few weeks?

N.B.: Zanu-PF is due to hold an elective congress next month, where the party will endorse its candidates – a presidential candidate and two vice-presidential “running mates” – for the 2018 general elections. This is an opportunity for Zanu-PF to resolve the current political impasse. Mnangagwa would be the most likely presidential candidate. Whether Mugabe or the ZDF deliver an interim statement – providing a blueprint for the transition – is unclear. But it would be beneficial, if only to assure confidence in the process.

Portrait: Emmerson Mnangagwa

F24: Will the ZDF continue to hold Mugabe under house arrest until the elective congress or try to resolve the situation, and install Mnangagwa as a transition leader, sooner?

N.B.: I think their preferred option would be for this to be resolved sooner, but Mugabe is held in great respect by many in Zimbabwe and the military don't want to be seen to be heavy-handed in how they manage the political transition.

F24: Who is behind the anti-Mugabe demonstrations planned for Saturday and what can we expect from this?

N.B.: A number of groups are seeking to exercise influence over the political transition by mobilising their supporters in Harare. The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association has been vocal in calling for Mugabe to step down. Their call for citizens to take to the streets contrasts with the patience of ordinary Zimbabweans. They may be agitating because they feel the transition is not moving quickly enough and want to add to the pressure on Mugabe. However, their attempt to capitalise on events, hijack the situation and take control of the narrative risks creating a breakdown of popular trust in the process.

F24: What is your view of South Africa's role as a mediator and what is their interest in this situation?

N.B.: Zimbabweans are very sceptical about South Africa's engagement on this issue, which is a legacy of the 2008/2009 post-electoral crisis. President Mbeki, who was then leader of South Africa, was appointed mediator of the crisis following a disputed election in which Mugabe lost the first round but his challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, [...] was unable to take part in the runoff election due to widespread violence and intimidation. South Africa was perceived as being weak and partisan towards Mugabe, primarily because it was unable to bring an end to the violence and allow a peaceful second round. This has understandably led to a huge amount of resentment.

President Zuma, who is chairman of the Southern African Development Community, has appointed two envoys who have been involved in these discussions between Mugabe and Chiwenga. But certainly, in the past, it has suited South Africa to keep Zimbabwe weak and vulnerable; South Africa benefits from a large number of skilled Zimbabwean expat workers – such as nurses, doctors and teachers – and they are perceived to be benefiting from a continuation of Zimbabwe's instability. South Africa receives investments in industry and agriculture that might otherwise go to Zimbabwe.

F24: What are the implications of this military takeover for the rest of the southern Africa region?

N.B.: Pretty seismic. Zimbabwe will be the first country in the region where a national liberation movement in power has seen an elected head of state from the liberation war era pushed out – rather than the ruling party managing a transition internally over a prolonged period. And that has ramifications for South Africa, where the ANC has a similar history as a liberation movement fighting against white domination. So it's hugely symbolic for a whole political generation that made their names fighting against colonial oppression and white supremacy. People will be watching closely to see how the situation is dealt with.

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