Zimbabwe’s ruling party accused the head of the armed forces of treason on Tuesday as armoured vehicles rolled towards the capital in apparent military pressure on President Robert Mugabe over a succession dispute.
There were few people on Harare’s streets as night fell and the military movements did not appear to represent an immediate offensive action. Analysts said it was premature to talk of a coup attempt but there appeared to be a rupture between Mugabe and the military.
The unprecedented statement represents an escalation of a rumbling political struggle over who will succeed Mugabe, 93, who has been in power since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980.
Mugabe chaired a weekly cabinet meeting in the capital on Tuesday. Afterwards, the ruling party, ZANU-PF, said it stood by the “primacy of politics over the gun”.
It said Chiwenga’s statement suggests “treasonable conduct ... meant to incite insurrection.”
Mugabe fired Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa last week. The veteran of the country’s 1970s liberation war was popular with the military and had been seen as a likely successor to Mugabe.
The army views his removal as part of a purge of independence-era figures to pave the way for Mugabe to hand power to his wife Grace Mugabe.
A Reuters witness saw two armoured vehicles parked beside the main road from Harare to Chinhoyi, about 20 km (14 miles) from the city. One, which was pointed in the direction of the capital, had come off its tracks.
Witnesses said they saw four armoured vehicles turn before reaching Harare and head towards the Presidential Guard compound in a suburb on the outskirts of Harare.
“There were about four tanks and they turned right here, you can see markings on the road,” one witness on the Chinhoyi highway said referring to the armoured vehicles. He pointed to a road that links to the presidential guard compound.
The troop movements raise tension on a continent where for decades armies regularly overthrew civilian governments.
'Defending our revolution'
Neither the president nor his wife responded in public to the general’s remarks and state media did not publish Chiwenga’s statement. The Herald newspaper posted some of the comments on its Twitter page but deleted them.
The head of ZANU-PF’s youth wing accused the army chief of subverting the constitution. Grace Mugabe has developed a strong following in the powerful youth wing.
“Defending the revolution and our leader and president is an ideal we live for and if need be it is a principle we are prepared to die for,” Kudzai Chipanga, who leads the ZANU-PF Youth League, said at the party’s headquarters in Harare.
Grace Mugabe’s rise has brought her into conflict with the independence-era war veterans, who once enjoyed a privileged role in the ruling party under Mugabe, but who have in recent years been banished from senior government and party roles.
Decades ago, Zimbabwe had one of Africa’s promising economies due in part to its agricultural exports.
The country is currently struggling to pay for imports due to a dollar crunch, which is also sparking rampant inflation only ten years after it suffered a financial implosion caused when the central bank began to print money.
Martin Rupiya, an expert on Zimbabwe military affairs at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, said the army appeared to be putting the squeeze on Mugabe.
“There’s a rupture between the executive and the armed forces,” Rupiya said.
Alex Magaisa, a British-based Zimbabwean academic said it was premature to talk about a coup.
“A military coup is the nuclear option. A coup would be a very hard sell at home and in the international community. They will want to avoid that,” Magaisa said.