Robert Mugabe is one of the world’s oldest political leaders and one who has lasted for decades, but a shocking twist sees him deposed and powerless. His recent moves to establish a political dynasty, and choose a successor to rule Zimbabwe after him, has seen the army overthrow him in a mostly peaceful coup. Except, apparently, it isn’t a coup, according to the army.
This argument over semantics is not surprising. Coups tend to be bloody, messy and destabilizing which is something that most of the international community would like to avoid. As such, the army of Zimbabwe has been careful not to talk about their takeover of the country and the detention of Robert Mugabe as a coup. Technically, it is a coup, but the last thing any of the key players need is the taint of illegitimacy. It’s a slippery slope from having an illegal government to civil war or foreign invasion.
Speaking of key players, who takes charge after Robert Mugabe? Mugabe could technically take back power, but his long reign has made him unpopular and this recent mutiny of the army places their loyalty in doubt. The loyalty of the army is key in any dictatorship. If they decide you’re out, you’re out. Add to that the Mugabe is 93 and is no longer the tough guerilla fighter but simply a sick, frail old man.
Mugabe had been planning to let his wife, Grace Mugabe take over power but her appointment as heir apparent sat poorly with Mugabe’s advisors and close colleagues, some of whom fought with Mugabe to ‘liberate’ their country from the West. Two men, in particular, were disturbed by Grace’s rise to power and the idea of her being Mugabe’s successor. The first is a former ally and defense minister Emmerson Mnangagwa who was to be Mugabe’s successor. Popular with the army and a man of political cunning, he fell foul of Mugabe in the 1990s but stayed in government until he criticized Grace and was fired, fleeing to Nambia.
The other was General Constantino Chiwenga who organized the ‘coup’ and is a close ally of Mnangagwa. He is also a product of the civil war that rocked Zimbabwe and he had control over the national army since Mugabe took power. Now he has made a play for power with Mnangagwa, using state TV to broadcast a statement, explaining his actions as a ‘purge of criminals’, roughly translated as Grace Mugabe and her cronies.
Interestingly, both men were trained in China and China is Zimbabwe’s closest ally and biggest trading partner. In fact, just before the coup, Constantino Chiwenga had visited China. Coincidence? Who can say? It’s certainly convenient for China. They would benefit from a change of leadership, provided it was swift and led to further stability. Perhaps they hope to capitalize on internal power struggles and take advantage of a new Zimbabwe rising from the ashes.
The most striking thing about all this is that there has been no popular uprising yet. Given the general condition of life in the country, it’s not surprising that people are nervous and reluctant to speak out about events. For the most part, life has continued as normal. But for the startling news broadcast yesterday, you would never know there was a coup.
People know it’s happening and some are exciting, but many are still wary. Mnangagwa might have deposed the unpopular Mugabe but he is no man of the people. He’s called ‘The Crocodile’ for a reason: he’s ruthless, cunning and a member of the ruling elite. The dispute is largely confined to the ruling Zanu-PF Party which Mugabe led, meaning that Mnangagwa could be a new dictator. Mugabe could even stay on, provided he makes Mnangagwa the next leader and not his wife.
Robert Mugabe represented many things to many people. His name is a byword for incompetence, a lesson on what not to do as a ruler. His actions ranged from the brutal to the baffling. Like all world leaders and figures of power, his legacy is, and will always be, divisive. This week, he has fallen victim to a scenario that few could imagine: an internal power struggle culminating in a coup (which isn’t a coup).
Now he and the army are in talks over his future. Some sources report that he is willing to step down as President and live in exile with his family. There are other possibilities but Mugabe must know he is done. Old and unpopular, the army coup has fatally undermined his power and prestige. In Africa, prestige and power are everything. That is what makes coups (or non-coups) so dangerous.
Zimbabwe is a state of flux. It might become a democracy or it could stay a dictatorship with a new man in Mugabe’s image. The court has replaced their king and the kingdom waits for the next move. Mugabe’s hopes of a dynasty have shattered and his removal signals the end of an era.
Whatever happens next, things will never be the same in Zimbabwe again.