“This is not a military takeover of government,” declared the Major General, (who donned an army beret and camouflage jacket) addressing the Zimbabwean people on television. There was a surprise change to listings, as troops took control of national broadcaster ZBC in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Maj Gen Sibusiso Moyo read out a statement from the military, stating that they were seeking to “pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country”, and targeting criminals around President Robert Mugabe. The military say they are holding talks with him over his future as President of Zimbabwe. Mugabe has appeared in public only once since the military action.
This, however, did not constitute a coup, the military have insist-ed. Mugabe is under house arrest, but he is “safe and sound” and they do not wish to overthrow the government. Despite assurances from the military, many are cynical about their claim that the country will re-turn to normal after they purge the criminals from around Mugabe, as Ugandan journalist Charles Oyan-go-Obbo tweeted “if it looks like a coup, walks like a coup and quacks like a coup, then it’s a coup”.
Even last week it would have seemed unimaginable that Mugabe’s authority would be challenged in this way. Mugabe is the oldest living head of state and is the only President an independent Zimbabwe has ever known. Robert Mugabe is viewed by the West as an authoritarian President, who has squandered the potential Zimbabwe once had and whose poor decisions have plummeted the country into economic hardship. He is subject to EU and US sanctions, and few in the West would mourn his departure. Despite this, he is still seen by many Zimbabweans as an anti-colonial hero.
Mugabe’s power has seemed unassailable for many decades in Zimbabwe; so why then has this coup-which-isn’t-a-coup taken place? The answer lies in a decision to sack Vice-President Emmerson Mnangawa.
This move was widely seen as an attempt by Mugabe to set up his wife, Grace, as his successor. Grace Mugabe, who is nicknamed “Gucci Grace” for her extravagant spending habits in impoverished Zimbabwe, is four decades her husband’s junior. Mrs Mugabe has not denied her aspirations to the presidency, stating in 2014, “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?”. She has supporters in her own right, known as Generation 40 or G40, who represent a younger generation that came of age after the struggle for independence.
The sacking of 74-year-old Mnangawa seemed to represent that the old wing of the ruling party, the Zanu-PF, were being eroded in favour of this new guard led by Grace Mugabe. In a statement a general warned against “purging, which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation back-ground”. The military leadership, many of whom are veterans of the guerrilla war, wish to retain the old guard. The recent action by the military seems unlikely to usher in a new order in Zimbabwe, though the power of President Mugabe, long a giant of African politics, will undoubtedly be eroded. This is something his opponents have sought for decades, but the recent action has not been staged by reformers. For years there has been quiet hope for substantive change; instead this represents a power struggle within the ruling party, which even if it brings about a change of leader is unlikely to bring about significant reform.