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Zimbabwe’s Very Peculiar Coup
Zimbabwe’s Very Peculiar Coup
Standoff in Zimbabwe as Struggle to Succeed Mugabe Deepens
Standoff in Zimbabwe as Struggle to Succeed Mugabe Deepens
An armoured personnel carrier stations by an intersection as Zimbabwean soldiers regulate traffic in Harare on 15 November 2017. AFP
Commentary / Africa

Zimbabwe’s Very Peculiar Coup

Zimbabwe’s military has detained the country’s 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace Mugabe, and taken control of the streets of the capital and the main television station. The next step – apparently, a legitimate-looking transfer of power to someone of the army’s choosing – may prove less easy.

The Zimbabwe Defense Forces have taken control of the country. What exactly happened?

The crisis burst into the open on 6 November when President Mugabe fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and expelled him from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Mnangagwa has been aligned with the military and Zimbabwe’s National Liberation War Veterans Association, and had been in a fierce struggle for power in the race to succeed the country’s 93-year-old leader. His principal opponent was Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, who heads a rival faction of ZANU-PF veterans known as the G40, leads the women’s wing and is popular among young party activists.

The army then unambiguously stepped in. A statement on 13 November by the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Constantino Chiwenga, called for an end to the unfolding purge of party elements that took part in Zimbabwe’s fifteen-year war of liberation from white rule, and warned that the army would intervene against any threat to the integrity of the revolution that led to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. Almost 24 hours later, the party’s spokesperson, Ambassador SK Moyo, accused Chiwenga of treasonous utterances and overstepping his mandate. Then, early on 15 November, troops took control of the government’s media headquarters and other important buildings.

The military urged the sixteen million Zimbabweans to “limit unnecessary movement” and have called for calm among key components of the state, the judiciary, parliamentarians, the security sector, churches, youth formations, traditional leaders and other political actors. Military vehicles were parked on the streets, but on the morning of 15 November this did not discourage Zimbabweans from going about their lives almost as normal. Incidents of violence appear to have been minimal, with few reports of gunfire and some of beatings. There is no evidence of overt division within the security sector.

An effective news blackout from the state media has however made people reliant on international and social media, and speculation is rife. A great variety of sentiments are being expressed, from relief and excitement that Mugabe's long reign may be finally over, to a profound nervousness that what follows could be even worse.

Does the military action spell the end of Robert Mugabe’s 37 years in power?

Mugabe appears to have lost power, but not his position as president, at least in the first two days after the military move. At 01:26 in the early hours of Wednesday 15 November, an army spokesman delivered a written statement on national television and radio claiming the military had taken action, “targeting criminals around [President Mugabe] who are committing crimes and are causing social and economic suffering in the country to bring them to justice”. The statement said the president and his family were safe and that “as soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect the country to return to normalcy”.

South African President Jacob Zuma confirmed Mugabe is “confined to his home”, as is apparently his wife, Grace. But Mugabe’s personal position remains unclear on many fronts.

Does the military’s action constitute a coup d’état?

This is a very peculiar kind of coup. Effectively there has been a military takeover, but the army has not declared martial law, the suspension of the constitution, or the deposition of the country’s head of state. The military and those such as War Veterans who supported a robust pushback following Vice President Mnangagwa’s dismissal have been at pains to argue that they are not pushing for a coup. Outside powers are also at pains not to use the word “coup” in relation to current events.

Yet General Chiwenga’s statement on 13 November had the hallmarks of threatening to seize power. He said that unless Mugabe took appropriate steps there would be a military intervention, albeit to address an apparent security threat perceived in both the ruling party and the country at large. The situation, he argued, warranted action and was in line with the military’s previous interventions in internal ZANU-PF disputes, enacted to ensure the ruling party and its revolutionary objectives were not hijacked. It would appear that Mugabe was either unable or refused to take the steps being demanded, setting in motion Chiwenga’s promised action.

The military’s televised broadcast maintained that “we wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover of government. What the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) is doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country which if not addressed may result in violent conflict”. The statement urged important arms of government and social constituencies to remain focused and calm.

There may well be sympathy for the military’s intervention from several domestic and regional quarters, but it sets dangerous anti-democratic precedent with major implications for Zimbabwe and beyond.

There may well be sympathy for the military’s intervention from several domestic and regional quarters, but it sets dangerous anti-democratic precedent with major implications for Zimbabwe and beyond. How much longer can this overt military intervention avoid being labelled a coup d’état? While the army’s intentions may be couched in constitutional language, the democratic credentials of those pursuing this course of action are also in doubt. Just as importantly, will the military, in conjunction with ZANU-PF and the government, be able to cobble together a plausible veneer of legality around this intervention? Will the opposition and civil society take a clear stance on this? Will President Mugabe, whose controversial election in 2013 was widely accepted, be willing and able to put his imprimatur on any new suggested plan of action?

What has been the regional reaction?

The African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) rightly condemn unconstitutional takeovers of power as a red line not to be crossed. At the time of going to press, neither the AU nor SADC have expressly condemned the Zimbabwe military’s intervention or described it as a coup. There have been growing frustrations with how Mugabe has been mishandling internal factional dynamics, the economy and the unresolved issues of his own succession, exacerbated by the destabilising antics of the first lady.

The SADC chairman, Jacob Zuma, despatched two special envoys to Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, his defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, and the new and little experienced state security minister, Advocate Bongani Bongo. From there, the envoys are expected to travel to Angola to brief President João Lourenço who is chairperson of SADC’s Organ for Politics, Defence and Security. Zuma confirmed he had been in touch with Mugabe and with the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, which are well-regarded in the region. Zuma called for “calm and restraint” and for the ZDF “to ensure peace and stability are not undermined”. He made no mention of a coup d’état.

Speaking on Tuesday, South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Gwede Mantashe made it clear that the ANC doesn’t want to get involved in the rift. “ZANU-PF must deal with the issue because Zimbabwe is not our colony. It’s not our province, it’s our neighbour. If things go wrong there, of course, we’ll be concerned because it’ll impact on us, but we have no authority over them, that’s the point we’re making”.

Where are Zimbabwe’s domestic politics heading? What kind of transitional government might be possible?

When Mugabe fired Vice President Mnangagwa on 6 November, it was thought that Grace Mugabe had prevailed in the eventual struggle to succeed her husband. But the army’s reaction appears to have ended the chances of her taking over.

The army has now detained senior members of Grace Mugabe’s G40 faction of party veterans, including Party Commissar Saviour Kasukuwere, Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, and Patrick Zhuwao, Mugabe’s nephew and minister of public services, labour and social welfare. Some social media is reporting Higher Education Minister Jonathan Moyo has also been arrested; others claim he also sought refuge with Mugabe. Others reportedly taken in include the ZANU-PF youth league chairperson, Kudzai Chipanga; images of his beaten visage have been circulating on social media. Unconfirmed reports claim the commissioner of police, Augustine Chihuri has also been detained. It remains to be seen who else constitutes the alleged “criminals and counter-revolutionaries” referred to by the military and whether they will now be subjected to due process, criminal investigation and prosecution.

36 hours after the announcement on state media, there had still been no public statement from the government or from any key political players. A statement from opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who is on his way back to Harare this evening, is keenly awaited.

The most likely person to benefit from recent events is Mnangagwa.

The most likely person to benefit from recent events is Mnangagwa. Some ZANU-PF party structures have already reversed their former support for Mnangagwa’s expulsion. He was in the past held out by many as the best hope within ZANU-PF for piloting a pragmatic economic recovery predicated on re-engagement with international creditors and a package of reform that would instil a measure of much needed confidence. He now has a chance to show that he can deliver on this promise.

If Mugabe steps down from office, Mnangagwa could be sworn in as interim leader. Tsvangirai has not indicated what line he will take, but he has made political deals before. It may be we are in for a staggered transitional process that features a staged public show of Mugabe "overseeing" the process, which would allow the new powers in the land to introduce credibly some kind of interim government. Some wish to bring forward parliamentary elections currently scheduled for mid-2018, but with guarantees that the political space will be opened up. Others are pushing for a longer transition, even up to two to three years, in the hope that this period can be used to level the political playing field and to build some foundation for economic recovery.

But even if Mnangagwa wins formal control of ZANU-PF at the scheduled ZANU-PF Extraordinary Congress in December, it is unclear whether he can cobble together a transitional unity government that can turn around the moribund economy and end the political crisis. Mnangagwa may explore options for an executive that incorporates opposition elements and those more recently estranged from ZANU-PF, such as Joice Mujuru. This would probably mean postponing the 2018 elections, which many believe would in any case be unable to provide a legitimising platform for reform and recovery in the current political context. Such a proposition would require broad based buy-in, not only from opposition elements, but civil society more broadly. Their endorsement and participation in charting a new national vision is essential, if this interregnum is to generate a credible set of options designed to enhance and rebuild Zimbabwe’s democratic credibility.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace attend a meeting of his ruling ZANU-PF party's youth league in Harare, Zimbabwe, on 7 October 2017. Philimon Bulawayo/REUTERS
Commentary / Africa

Standoff in Zimbabwe as Struggle to Succeed Mugabe Deepens

President Robert Mugabe plunged Zimbabwe into political crisis by firing his long-time ally and enforcer Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa on 6 November 2017. In this Q&A prior to an apparent army coup in Mnangagwa's favour on 14-15 November, Crisis Group’s Senior Southern Africa Consultant Piers Pigou gives the background to the struggle to succeed the 93-year-old president.

This Q&A on the background to Zimbabwe’s political crisis of November 2017 was published just before an apparent army coup on the night of 14-15 November.

What’s behind the new political crisis in Zimbabwe?

The crisis began on 6 November when President Mugabe fired Emmerson Mnangagwa and expelled him from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. This was not unexpected. The powerful vice president had become a serious rival and threat to the physically weakened but still astute Mugabe.

Since Vice President Joice Mujuru’s unceremonious removal from office in late 2014, there has been a debilitating factional battle within ZANU-PF over who would succeed the aging president. It pitted Mnangagwa and his supporters against a group of powerful senior and vocal party members – dubbed the “G40”. They rallied around First Lady Grace Mugabe and by mid-2016 it was evident Mugabe tacitly favoured his wife’s associates, who dominated ZANU-PF’s Youth and Women’s Leagues.

During this period, veterans of the liberation war, a key pillar of Mugabe’s support, broke ranks and fell behind Mnangagwa. However, Mnangagwa was unable to embrace them, fearful this would be used against him as further evidence of disloyalty. Instead, he distanced himself from those who supported and promoted him, which made him look weak and indecisive.

His eventual fall played out in awkward slow motion, with the pendulum of his political fortunes swinging back and forth as analysts feverishly speculated whether or not his ambitions to succeed the president would be thwarted. Some expected Mnangagwa’s removal to play out at the party’s extraordinary congress in December. There is speculation that Mugabe acted ahead of this out of fear that his health might rapidly deteriorate.

Where does the army and security sector stand on Mnangagwa’s firing?

Mnangagwa’s support within the security sector, which is crucial to ZANU-PF’s continued rule, supposedly made him too big to fall. Evidently, this was not the case. But his removal has lifted the lid on growing discontent.

A public statement on 13 November by the commander of the defence forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, sent an unambiguous warning that internal dynamics in ZANU-PF, including counter-revolutionary infiltration into the party and hostile attitudes toward the security sector from certain politicians, were destabilising Zimbabwe and generating insecurity. Without mentioning Mnangagwa, Chiwenga called for an end to the unfolding purge of party elements with a liberation history, warning that if the integrity of Zimbabwe’s revolution was threatened, the army would intervene. Although couched in defence of the Zimbabwe’s commander in chief, President Mugabe, Chiwenga implicitly was pointing his finger at him, the first lady and certain G40 elements.

This unprecedented public intervention has sharpened tensions within both ZANU-PF and the security forces. How Mugabe responds to this will be critical if further tensions are to be avoided. He has allowed senior officers to make political statements before, but generally when these were about the opposition. On several occasions in the last two years, he publicly has expressed displeasure at their intervention in internal party affairs. Chiwenga’s statement goes beyond previous interventions, and Mugabe will have to employ all his guile if he intends to ensure continued accommodation with the armed forces.

What does Mnangagwa’s dismissal mean for Zimbabwe’s mutating political landscape?

Mnangagwa’s networks within the party and state administration insulated him to some extent from Mugabe’s machinations and the clear intent of the first lady to bring him down. By mid-2017, it was clear that the G40 was in fact Mugabe’s own project (albeit one he may not have full control over), employed along with his wife as a foil to contain Mnangagwa’s ambitions. As the noose tightened, the crude choreography of accusations against him crescendoed into a series of public humiliations, during which he was accused of disloyalty, deceit and tribalism. It all pointed to his inevitable removal. Yet, inexplicably, he hung on, seemingly without a coherent plan and unable to convincingly push back.

G40 acolytes in the provinces have drawn up a list of Mnangagwa allies they want purged. This includes long-time State Security Minister Kembo Mohadi and recently fired Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who has been the public face of re-engagement with international financial institutions. Some may be expelled from the ZANU-PF, but most will be enmeshed in internal disciplinary processes that will significantly frustrate any possible organised pushback from within ZANU-PF’s provincial structures. A purge of senior civil servants perceived as aligned to Mnangagwa also is expected.

President Mugabe turns 94 in February and remains the party’s presidential candidate for the 2018 election. What kind of succession is he planning and will he support the elevation of his wife, Grace Mugabe, to the vice presidency?

Having removed his major rival, Mugabe can now stage-manage his own succession, which likely will occur only after he dies in office. ZANU-PF’s extraordinary congress, scheduled 12 to 17 December, will see a reconfiguration and possible expansion of ZANU-PF’s presidium to include three vice presidents (also known as 2nd secretary), most likely the incumbent, Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko, Grace Mugabe and Defence Minister Sydney Sekeremayi. The latter has been enthusiastically promoted over the last few months by Grace and the G40 as the man Mugabe trusts most. But, like everyone else, Sekeremayi is a mere appointee and serves at the president’s pleasure. He does not have his own power base, and in late 2014 he had to be rescued by Mugabe after being caught in the cross-hairs of the anti-Mujuru purge.

ZANU-PF’s Women and Youth Leagues, now supported by Vice President Mphoko, have called on Mugabe to appoint Grace as vice president. She is undoubtedly ambitious and may well have her sights on the top job. Mugabe, the final arbiter, has supported his wife’s controversial foray into the political battlefield, where she has been effectively promoting his political interests. But 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. Her elevation to first vice president would also not guarantee that she take over once Mugabe dies. Indeed, her political cachet is likely to be significantly diminished when her husband is no longer in office.

Can Mnangagwa stage a comeback?

When the axe fell last week, Mnangagwa fled to Mozambique, fearing for his own safety. This was an irony not lost on those who welcome the downfall of a man nicknamed the Crocodile, with a reputation for brutality and once regarded as untouchable. His first public pushback, a statement from an unknown location, attacked the first family for treating ZANU-PF as their personal property and promising he would be back to take control of the situation within a matter of weeks.

Mnangagwa’s options are certainly now more constrained. It is unclear whether he will attempt to undermine ZANU-PF’s election preparations or if he has the capacity to do so. There is also the question of how he should relate to the opposition and especially its principal leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who heads the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), with whom he has been accused of secretly conspiring. To join the opposition would be used as further “evidence” of his alleged complicity, and may well further divide the opposition, many of whom want nothing to do with a man accused of an array of gross human rights violations and of having sought to disrupt the opposition. But to strike out on his own (as Mujuru did when she formed her National People’s Party) likely would have him heading only a small and marginal party in a fragmented political landscape.

What does this development mean in terms of improving Zimbabwe’s prospects for re-engagement with international creditors, reform and recovery?

There is widespread uncertainty regarding what will happen next. Tsvangirai, whose own health problems have fed speculation that he may not be able to lead the major opposition coalition, the MDC Alliance, in national elections expected in April 2018, has rightly warned that the political environment is dangerously unstable.

Economic conditions have visibly deteriorated over the last two months. The volume of physical money circulating in both the formal and informal economy has contracted sharply. Inflationary pressures exacerbated by this liquidity crisis have driven up the cost of living, leading to a crash in the purchasing power of salaries paid into bank accounts. At the same time, the government is continuing along a dangerous path of deficit financing, with the new Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo announcing the budget deficit will climb to $1.82 billion this year (the total budget is $5.6 billion). The government has no plan beyond the limited option of domestic borrowing, which has skyrocketed since 2013. Zimbabwe is once again heading back into hyperinflationary territory.

Mnangagwa was held out by many as the best hope within ZANU-PF for piloting an economic recovery predicated on re-engagement with international creditors and a package of reform that would instil a measure of much needed confidence. Yet evidence that he would or could deliver on this front is not persuasive.

Those now in the ascendency within ZANU-PF in any event are unlikely to explore these options, especially before the elections. They have demonstrated no intention of doing so. In theory, Mnangagwa could lay out the re-engagement, reform and recovery plan that he apparently was unable to deliver because he was constrained by internal ZANU-PF factionalism. That said, if he does not come up with a coherent strategy that moves beyond efforts to clawback power within ZANU-PF, few will be convinced that he has the vision to pilot such a comeback, let alone confront the bigger challenge of a national recovery plan.