Zimbabwe’s Military Says There’s Nothing to See Here

Robert Mugabe is under house arrest, and the generals are in charge. But the top brass still insist there hasn’t been a coup.

Soldiers deployed to the streets of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, on Nov. 15 as the military appeared to seize control. (AFP/Getty Images)
Soldiers deployed to the streets of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, on Nov. 15 as the military appeared to seize control. (AFP/Getty Images)

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s military seized control of the state broadcaster early Wednesday and took President Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, into custody as troops deployed across the capital at dawn. The military denied it had carried out a coup, saying Mugabe and his family are “safe” and their “security is guaranteed.” But after 37 years in power, Zimbabwe’s only president since independence no longer appeared to be in charge.

In a statement broadcast around 4 a.m., Maj. Gen. S. B. Moyo said he expected that the “situation will return to normalcy” once those around Mugabe who are “committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country” are brought to justice. But amid reports that recently deposed Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, long considered a contender to succeed Mugabe, had returned from exile in South Africa, it seems just as likely that he could be in power by day’s end.

“What has happened in Zimbabwe is a military takeover of the state,” said McDonald Lewanika, a political analyst who directs the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a pro-democracy group. “It is a coup, a veto coup to be precise, one that is aimed not at addressing poor governance but at pre-emptive action aimed at anticipated actions against the interests of the army.”

The apparent military takeover comes two days after the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, threatened to “step in” if an ongoing purge of the government’s old guard continued. In recent weeks, first lady Grace Mugabe launched a campaign to sideline Mnangagwa, who was seen as her fiercest rival to succeed her husband. She accused him of sowing divisions within the ruling Zanu-PF party and plotting to topple the president.

Then on Nov. 6, Robert Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa, seemingly opening the way for the first lady to replace him at a planned conference of the ruling party in December. Soon after, various bodies within Zanu-PF endorsed her as a potential vice presidential candidate. Having long been tipped as the power behind the throne, Grace Mugabe was tantalizingly close to seizing it.

Then the military stepped in.

Mugabe remains in detention and has not yet been officially deposed. But several of Grace’s allies in the Cabinet have been arrested, including Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo. (The first lady’s whereabouts are unknown, but there are unconfirmed reports that she is in Namibia.) Mnangagwa has so far remained silent amid ongoing negotiations to determine the country’s future.

“Emmerson Mnangagwa is one of the most cunning and ruthless men in Zimbabwe,” said Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Barack Obama. “He is as relentless as he is ruthless, and he has been preparing for most of his career to succeed Mugabe. He is also arrogant and condescending, and he is not likely to let Grace easily take what he thinks is rightfully his.”

The apparent coup could mark the bitter end of one of Africa’s most storied and vilified regimes. Imprisoned for 11 years during the war against Ian Smith’s apartheid regime, Mugabe was elected the first prime minister of independent Zimbabwe in 1980. Hopes that he would prove a moderate leader were quickly dashed when he moved to quash a rival faction of the former liberation movement, led by Joshua Nkomo, and massacred between 10,000 and 20,000 people in Nkomo’s ethnic Ndebele heartland. By 1987, Zimbabwe had become a one-party state, with Mugabe elevated to the perch of president. Zanu-PF, the party that under him became synonymous with the state, reliably won elections through a combination of patronage and violence.

“It has always been rigged,” retired Brig. Gen. Agrippa Mutambara, a former Zimbabwean ambassador to Mozambique who quit Zanu-PF in 2014 and joined the opposition, said of elections in Zimbabwe. “After independence, all the subsequent elections were rigged.”

But Mugabe’s status as a liberation hero shielded him from criticism in Africa, where he is still accorded the status of an elder statesman, despite the imposition of U.S. and European sanctions. Ultimately, his fate seems to have been sealed by something much closer to home: his wife Grace’s aggressive maneuvering to succeed him over the objections powerful factions within the regime.

A former typist in the president’s office who married Mugabe after an affair, Grace hardly seemed destined to be an Eva Perón. For the first decade or so of her marriage to Mugabe, she was known primarily for her lavish European shopping sprees, which earned her the nickname “the first shopper.” But in 2014, she began a rapid ascent to power that involved a relentless campaign of political fratricide, essentially tearing the ruling party apart in her quest to bring it under her control. She went to war not just with Mnangagwa and his allies — including war veterans, a powerful constituency that was long a bedrock of support for Mugabe — but also with a previous vice president, Joice Mujuru, who was sacked under similar circumstances in 2014.

Until Chiwenga’s threat to intervene on Monday, Grace appeared to have vanquished her foes. But she had also left the party weaker and more divided than ever before. In alienating so many key sources of support, Mujuru told Foreign Policy in an interview in October, Mugabe had “plucked off all the feathers for him to fly.”

A crisis has been brewing for months in Zimbabwe, fueled in part by a rapidly deteriorating economic situation. In 2009, the country abandoned its currency amid 500 billion percent inflation in favor of the U.S. dollar. The economy stabilized for a time — although at a level half the size of what it was in 2000, when Mugabe destroyed the country’s agricultural sector with an ill-fated indigenization program that uprooted thousands of white farmers. But a vast trade deficit has meant that the number of U.S. dollars in circulation has dwindled rapidly, resulting in a cash crisis. The government’s solution, introducing so-called “bond notes,” essentially a new parallel currency backed by a dubious loan from the African Export-Import Bank, has only fueled fears of a return to hyperinflation.

Even as the coup unfolded around them on Wednesday, people waited patiently in queues to make minuscule withdrawals from banks and ATMs. For more than a year, banks have limited withdrawals to $50 and in some cases $20 per day, effectively trapping many people’s life savings out of reach.

Whoever succeeds Mugabe will need to settle the country’s arrears with foreign creditors before they can hope to revive the economy with fresh financing. Mnangagwa was reportedly favored to succeed Mugabe by some Western countries, particularly Britain, because he was seen as someone who could right the economy. But critics point to his poor record on human rights, including his direct role in the massacres in Nkomo’s heartland in the early 1980s.

Victor Matemadanda, who leads the powerful War Veterans Association, said he would welcome an interim government led by Mnangagwa. “He has always been our preferred choice for a long time, and Mugabe has failed to respect this,” he told FP.

Members of Zimbabwe’s divided opposition have largely refrained from criticizing the military’s actions. Negotiations are reportedly underway to form a transitional government that could include members of the opposition, though few details have emerged. In an interview with the Guardian, Nelson Chamisa, deputy head of the largest opposition party, called for “peace, constitutionalism, democratization, the rule of law, and the sanctity of human life.”

That may be prove a tall order in post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, where, according to Carson, “Victory will go to the most ruthless.”

Tendai Marima is an academic researcher and freelance journalist covering sub-Saharan Africa. Follow her on Twitter: @i_amten.

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