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Mugabe’s fall from … Grace

‘It is not a coup and anyone who says it is will be shot’, or so should have said Zimbabwe’s military after they took Robert Mugabe and his wife into custody, patrolled the capital of Harare in tanks and positioned troops on the streets.  Zimbabweans were warned not to come out because of the possibility of violence.

According to army spokesman Major General Sibusiso Moyo, the army took over the state broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) early yesterday morning to read out a statement denying there had not been a military coup. In classic military coup double-speak, what had happened was there had been a ‘bloodless peaceful transition’ of power.

If it is possible to set aside the irony, what has happened is that Zimbabwe’s army, which has increasingly directly controlled the country’s politics over the past couple of decades, has decided that its geriatric 93 year old president is no longer fit for office. This view was strengthened when Mugabe sacked his heir apparent, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, apparently in favor of his wife, Grace Mugabe.

Mnangagwa appears to have been instrumental in the coup. In a Tweet under his name, the Vice-President said: ‘Zimbabweans stay calm &remain tuned to national news’.

‘I’m back in the Country &will be quite busy over the next few days. My communication​ with you will now be via formal broadcasting channels so I’m unlikely to use the twitter handle. Thank you all for the support & solidarity’

Given the army now controls ‘formal broadcasting channels’, it would appear that the Vice-President has the direct support of, if not be the puppet of, the army.

In recent years, it has become apparent that President Mugabe has not been the power that he once was. It has also been clear that he has been kept in his position, and his actions have been largely directed by, a clique of senior army officers.

As a personal observation, I was fortunate enough to see Robert Mugabe speak to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1983, just three short years after Zimbabwe achieved independence. Mugabe was then at the peak of his powers, charismatic, almost mesmerizing, still exuding the idealism that led to the end of colonial rule. If I was to become disillusioned, that was naught compared with the subsequent experiences of Zimbabwe’s citizens.

Ethno-political fighting broke out in 1982 between Mugabe’s nationalist Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), aligned with the Shona tribe, and Joshua Nkomo’s then more Soviet-leaning Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), aligned with the Ndebele tribe.

Multi-ethnic post-colonial states have a strong tendency to build political loyalty around ethnicity rather than values, and to bestow favor through patron-client patronage. In simple terms, this leads to conflict between the ethnic ‘haves’ and the ethnic ‘have nots’.  

After considerable blood-letting, described by the CIA at the time as a Shona ZANU attempt to ‘wipe out’ the Ndebele ZAPU, the two leaders agreed to join together as the ZANU-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Mugabe would remain as President and Nkomo would be Vice-President in what was agreed would be a one party state. By this stage, whatever idealism that had been associated with Zimbabwe’s bid for independence was effectively gone.

Mugabe turned out to be just another African dictator, if perhaps starting from a higher rhetorical plane and thus having that much further to fall. When Nkomo died, of natural causes, in 1999, the Mugabe group’s power was complete.  

Profound economic mismanagement and corruption – and the emblematic forced removal of white land-owners with consequence food shortages – led to the rise of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Between rigged elections and open violence, Mugabe was able to continue his grip on power. Suppressing the MDC, however, increasingly appeared to be a task for the army, and its ZANU-PF thug underlings.     

Mugabe was kept on, however, because he was a useful symbolic figurehead. His advancing age only became a problem when he began to forget who the political puppet masters really were, and that he could not make questionable decisions without their approval, or direction.

General Moyo said that the military crack-down underway was targeting ‘criminals’ around Mugabe. Moya added that ‘as soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy’. This, presumably, means that Mugabe will ‘resign’ as President and allow the army-friendly former Vice-President Mnangagwa to assume the presidency.

The coup was triggered by army commander General Constantino Chiwenga threatening on Monday to ‘step in’ to calm political tensions over Mugabe last week sacking Vice-President Mnangagwa. The ZANU-PF responded by accusing Chiwenga of ‘treasonable conduct’, which precipitated the coup.

Zimbabwe’s army has been praised by Chris Mutsvangwa, chairman of the country’s powerful war veterans’ association and close Mnangagwa ally, for carrying out ‘a bloodless correction of gross abuse of power’. According to a ZANU-PF Tweet, Mnagngawa has already been named as the party’s interim president and, consequently, President of Zimbabwe. The party, long an extension of the army, has fallen into line.

The overthrow of Robert Mugabe is far from his powerful, idealistic speech to the UN in 1983. But the only thing that has really changed, if even this, is that the last semblance of a link between Zimbabwe’s aspirations for ‘liberation’ at independence in 1980 and the events of this week have finally dispelled the mythological chimera they had long since become.