The first sign that something unusual was afoot in Zimbabwe stirred in the countryside.
Small numbers of tanks, manned by silent troops, were seen driving along the Chinhoyi road leading into the country’s capital, Harare. Soon after, soldiers took up positions across the city as anxious commuters looked on.
Following hours of claim and counterclaim, rumour finally gave way to reality with the appearance of a uniformed general on state television. A coup was underway.
The dramatic military takeover – which appears likely to bring an end to President Robert Mugabe’s 37 years in power – represents the most significant political upheaval in the Southern African nation since independence in 1980, and the culmination of a prolonged and bitter split in the ruling party that Mugabe once dominated and shaped in his own image. Even if Mugabe survives the coup – the military forces holding him insist that they are merely targeting ‘criminals’ around the President – he is likely to emerge a much diminished figure wielding a fraction of his previous authority.
Just days before the coup, Mugabe took the fatal decision of sacking powerful vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa in an uncharacteristically decisive attempt to smooth the succession for Grace Mugabe, his 52-year old wife and patron of the G40 faction of the ruling party. Within days, army chief General Constantino Chiwenga warned of severe consequences. As the tanks rolled in, it became clear that the frail Mugabe – who for decades bolstered his authority by artfully playing off rivals and delaying succession plans – had badly overplayed his hand.
The fall of the house of Mugabe?
The consequences of that miscalculation are still becoming clear. While the military may appoint Mugabe to a figurehead role in a bid to retain the illusion of continuity, his days of calling the shots have almost certainly been brought to an end. The military’s move also appears likely to terminate the colourful career of Grace Mugabe, the volatile and wildly unpopular First Lady known for a lavish lifestyle and propensity for violent outbursts.
While desperate to portray herself as the embodiment of her husband’s radical legacy, the undiplomatic Grace appears to have alienated the powerful forces which he proved so adept at squaring. Reports suggest that Grace Mugabe’s whereabouts are unknown, while some of her allies – including controversial minister Saviour Kasukuwere – may have been pulled into the army’s dragnet. It is hard to see how their careers will recover.
What of the future? It is clear that power now lies in the hands of a military clique acting in concert with the Mnangagwa faction.
While the former vice-president is thought to be more open to certain economic reforms than Mugabe – a Reuters investigation suggested that he was prepared to strike a deal to bring back dispossessed white farmers who once dominated the economy – the 75-year old veteran is certainly no democrat. Through decades of Mugabe’s rule, Mnangagwa has been known as a fierce party loyalist.
As for the army, a deep-state institution with a history of self-enrichment, corruption, and violence against opponents is unlikely to have any appetite for democratic reforms that could undermine its pre-eminent position in the political and business spheres. The continuation of some form of Zanu-PF rule, underwritten by an increasingly powerful role for the military, is more likely.
Much could depend on the regional picture. The African Union, where Mugabe recently served as chair and is continually feted for his role in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, is fiercely opposed to military coups, particularly against celebrated veterans. The facts on the ground are likely to prove deeply unwelcome to the institution.
The views of regional hegemon South Africa, which wields significant economic influence over its northern neighbour, are harder to read. President Jacob Zuma – once a fierce critic of Mugabe but now distracted by domestic problems – has despatched mediators to Harare to meet Mugabe and the army, and is leading calls for an amicable solution. A tacit understanding between Mnangagwa and Pretoria could do much to smooth the difficult transition period.
Whoever emerges as kingmaker will have to grapple with a country again in the vice-like grip of severe economic depression. After decades of mismanagement and underinvestment, businesses and the civil service are struggling to pay workers amid widespread cash shortages and the predictable failure of the government’s flagship bond notes programme.
In the medium term, the new administration may be forced to mend strained relations with the International Monetary Fund, whose approval of economic support will be contingent on a package of real economic reforms.
Whether the new powerbrokers are interested in dismantling the crooked economic system which has served them so well remains a separate question entirely. While Mugabe may finally be on his way out, unwinding his baleful legacy could prove even more challenging.