Zimbabwe’s Military Coup in Perspective

Regardless of statements by Zimbabwe’s military leaders, a coup d’etat has taken place.  Some Zimbabweans are already openly celebrating the removal or President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the country since 1980.  How did this military coup come about?  What can we expect in the coming months?

By Leon Hartwell

The Role of Securocrats

For those who have been close observers of the situation in Zimbabwe, this military coup did not come as a complete surprise.  The king maker role of the so-called “securocrats” has been fundamental to Zimbabwe’s political establishment for decades.  In fact, there is an old joke in Zimbabwe: “Why do they call it ‘general elections’?  Because the generals determine the outcome of elections.”

Since the beginning, Mugabe carved out an important role for the security sector to maintain order and to keep his regime intact.  From 1982 to 1987, he used the notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to crack down on opposition in Matabeleland.  It is said that Emmerson Mnangagwa, a crucial figure behind the current coup, was also a key player during that period when almost 20,000 Ndebele were massacred.  For a period after that, the military was sent back to the barracks.  However, by 2008, Mnangagwa reactivated the military to help secure Mugabe’s victory during the controversial run-off election.

The Timing of the Coup

Many of the securocrats who fought for Zimbabwe’s independence and who kept Mugabe in power, are the same people who have now turned against him.  A key factor in the timing of the coup has been the ascendency of Mugabe’s wife, Grace within the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

Since Grace entered public life, Zimbabweans have viewed her as a sexually promiscuous, uneducated former typist whose only interest is luxury shopping.  By 2014, Grace went into high gear to beautify her image.  The state-owned, ZANU-PF-controlled media, constructed an image of a person with a good heart (through her support for young orphans), a sophisticated businesswoman, an intellectual (the University of Zimbabwe controversially awarded her a PhD within two months of enrolment), and a shrewd politician.

By the end of 2014, Grace became ZANU-PF’s head of the Women’s League and she helped to push out Vice President Joice Mujuru, who at the time stood a good chance of becoming Mugabe’s successor.  It was a warning to other potential successors.

More than anything else, Grace’s rise to the top in Zimbabwe threatened the interests of Zimbabwe’s establishment, which includes the security sector.  She wanted to establish a dynasty and to replace prominent securocrats with Generation 40 (G40), a relatively younger crop of Zimbabweans who showed loyalty towards her.

The removal of Grace was therefore a matter of urgency.  In Zimbabwe, power is money, and the being shunned has major financial implications.  The coup has nothing to do with genuinely restoring the constitutional order or anything noble, it is an attempt to protect the establishment’s political and financial interests.

Besides, this coup came at a time when Grace’s public image took yet another nose dive, which means there will not be a huge outcry if she is removed from the political scene.  In August, Grace viciously assaulted a model in a luxury apartment rented by her sons in South Africa.  The incident reinforced Grace’s bad reputation for public outbursts and it sparked greater scrutiny over the First Family’s opulent lifestyles.

Grace’s problem is that she was punch drunk on victory, but little did she realise that she was overplaying her hand.  Her most drastic move to date was her open intentions to get rid of Vice President Mnangagwa, arguably one of the most important securocrats in Zimbabwe.    Whether her preferred method was poisoning him through thallium, or by convincing her husband to sack him remains unclear.  Nonetheless, after Mnangagwa was unceremoniously fired, the security sector had to act rapidly.  If Mnangagwa truly believes that he was poisoned by Grace’s minions, the coup was also a matter of life and death as well as revenge.  Over the years, Mugabe has thrown too many struggle ‘comrades’ under the bus and this was, “the last straw” as one Zimbabwean described it to me.

The timing of this coup was also perfect, given the state of Mugabe’s health and his extensive traveling.  He is 93 years old, and he has increasingly been caught stumbling and sleeping in front of cameras.  In 2017 alone, Uncle Bob spent an enormous amount of time (almost 57 percent of his time by mid-May), outside of Zimbabwe, sometimes for medical reasons.  This gave the securocrats plenty of time to plot their coup, and if need be, an excuse to say that Mugabe is not medically fit to be President.

A third factor that precipitated the coup, is that the Zimbabwean economy is once again “in the intensive care unit” as some would say.  At the end of October, economist Steve Hank noted that the country’s annual inflation rate stood at 348 percent.  It is possible that the coup makers calculated that most Zimbabweans will not lose much sleep over the removal of Uncle Bob.  In fact, some individuals from Harare to Beijing, might even welcome it.

Looking Into the Chrystal Ball

The top four priorities for the coup makers will be maintaining order, controlling the message, cloaking the military takeover in civilian clothes, and rolling out measures to improve the economy.  All these issues are ultimately intertwined.

With regards to maintaining order, already, police officers have been rounded up throughout Zimbabwe and Mugabe has reportedly been placed under house arrest.  It is unlikely that there will be heavy infighting within the security sector given the broad support for General Constantino Chiwenga (commander of Zimbabwe’s Defence Forces), Air Marshal Perence Shiri, Lieutenant-General Valerio Sibanda (Commander of the National Army) and Mnangagwa.

War veterans have also been brought in to provide legitimacy to the coup.  Their role should not be underestimated.  For years, Zimbabwean propaganda has praised them as the liberators of the country.  The War Veterans, then under the leadership of the late Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi, were also the ones who were instrumental in the country’s land grab.

Current chairman of the War Veterans Association, Chris Mutsvangwa, has thus far praised the military coup leaders for setting Zimbabwe on a path to restore “genuine democracy” after it was captured by rogue elements.  It is probable that Mutsvangwa will also play an important role in terms of presenting a friendly face on behalf of the ‘new’ regime.  He is a prominent businessman, politician, and diplomat.  He was instrumental in developing Mugabe’s Look East Policy where Zimbabwe began to focus increasingly on China to replace Western businesses after the country was hit by sanctions.  At the same time, Mutsvangwa has served as a diplomat in the Western world, and he has a positive reputation among Western diplomats.

As for messaging, the coup makers moved rapidly to take over the state-owned media in order to control the message.  Their main focus has been, and will continue to be, to legitimise the military coup.  This will involve justification of the coup by for example saying that this has been done in the name of national interest and ultimately for the greater good.

At the same time, the coup makers will satanize Grace Mugabe and other G40 members like Jonathan Moyo, Saviour Kasukwuere and Ignatius Chombo.  They will parade their wealth and all their dirty laundry in front of the television cameras so as to demonstrate that these individuals were looting Zimbabwe at the expense of the average Zimbabwean.  The lines between “us” and “them” and “good” and “evil” will become more pronounced in the coming days.

Another big part of the gaining popular support for the coup will be to make economic development a key priority.  For a start, coup makers will have to dampen the country’s hyperinflation. They will also do their best to court Zimbabwean, South African and Western businesses.  One can expect them to stress the importance of private property rights in order to bring some form of predictability back into the economy.

The coup makers will also have to call on some favours from China.  Despite his Look East Policy, Chinese companies have reportedly had a difficult relationship with Mugabe after they were recently accused by him of siphoning off $15 billion in diamond revenue.  Less than a week ago, G40 attempted to finger Mnangagwa for looting the revenues, but in truth, they were all in it together.  Chinese companies will therefore have to cough up some diamond revenues in exchange for guarantees that their interests in Zimbabwe will not be harmed.  It is likely that this was a central issue that Chiwenga ironed out with the Chinese during his recent visit to the country shortly before the coup.  China could also provide Zimbabwe with some protection within the United Nations Security Council if need be, especially if issues such as sanctions of military intervention are raised.

Legitimising the Military Coup and Scenarios

Despite the evidence, the military has claimed that what has transpired in Zimbabwe is not a coup.  This is a crucial issue, given that both the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) generally react negatively towards coups d’état. Their reactions to past coups in the region have ranged from membership suspension to military intervention.  The latter move is unlikely at present, but there will definitely be a lot of pressure by SADC and the AU to return the levers of power to civilian hands.

Military coups can be flued, but broadly speaking, there are four scenarios to remove Mugabe and to install a civilian government (even if the latter will merely be window dressing).  One, coup leaders could force Uncle Bob to resign in exchange for security guarantees for him and his family.  They could strategically demand that Mnangagwa be reinstated as Vice President before his resignation.  Legally speaking, that would make it easier for the Crocodile, as Mnangagwa is nicknamed, to become President.

In a second scenario, should Mugabe fail to cooperate, coup makers, with the help of their friends in ZANU-PF, could also argue that Mugabe has become “incapacitated” over the past few weeks, which is when Grace became the de facto President.  This means that Mnangagwa’s dismissal as Vice President was unconstitutional, and instead of being fired, he should have legally become President of the country. As a result, he will simply be ‘reinstated’ in his ‘rightful’ position.

A third scenario would be to call for an extraordinary ZANU-PF conference.  Mugabe can then be officially removed as president of the party (and subsequently also the country) and ‘democratically’ replaced by Mnangagwa or a compromise candidate.  This by no means entails that succession will be easy, as succession rules are very murky.  But, with G40 out of the way and the military in control, there is a greater chance that ZANU-PF will unite behind one candidate.

Finally, coup leaders could form some sort of a Government of National Unity (GNU) akin to the one birthed by the Global Political Agreement after the violent 2008 elections.  This would make the military coup more attractive to Zimbabwe as a whole at it would give the illusion of inclusivity and hope.  In this effort, they will attempt to construct another GNU by bringing in representatives, not only from ZANU-PF, but also from opposition parties.  One can expect that the military will engage a wide-ranging group of players, including Joice Mujuru, Morgan Tsvangirai, Tendai Biti, and Welshman Ncube.  They will also likely promise free and fair elections within a reasonable time period.

Some opposition figures might respond favourably to the coup makers for two reasons: Firstly, after a long absence from government, they will be tempted to be part of it given that it would provide them with access to some form of power and resources.  Secondly, they might hope that the military coup represents the possibility to effect change.  However, they should not be blinded as to how this military coup came into being.  This is the same security sector that helped to keep Mugabe in power for nearly four decades, the very man who is about to be vilified.  In the absence of serious institutional changes, the risk is that they will again be disposed as soon as the next general election is announced, and we know why they call it general elections.

What If the Crocodile Comes Out on Top?

As seen, in several of the scenarios, Mnangagwa stands a good chance to replace Mugabe as President.  I remember meeting him at a function at the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013 at the Rainbow Towers in Harare.  It was during the country’s Constitution making process and I was keen to gage his perspective on the matter.  After exchanging a few pleasantries, I asked him about his background in law.  I said to him, “They say you are well versed in legalese”, to which he icily responded, “I am a military man.”

Mnangagwa has been a key player within the security establishment from the very beginning.  He also has strong links with the political and security establishment in SADC as well as China.  But it is his political unpopularity that should raise the most serious red flags.  As a candidate, he has proven to be unpopular in past elections.  It means that should he be fielded as ZANU-PF’s presidential candidate at some point in the future, he will most likely resort to familiar methods that have served him well in the past – threats, violence and extreme electoral manipulation – in order to stay on top.

In the coming weeks though, the military coup leaders will attempt to soften Mnangagwa’s image. They will present him, not as a “military man” as he put it to me, but as a victim and a humble politician ready to serve the nation.  His background and experience in law will certainly come in handy to perform legal gymnastics to legitimise this coup.

Those who already rejoice over the removal of Mugabe in the hope that something better is on the horizon will most likely be disappointed.  What has happened represents merely a readjustment of the old older rather than a new beginning.

Leon Hartwell was the Senior Policy Adviser for Political and Development Cooperation at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Harare from 2012-2013.  He is currently a PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University focusing on conflict resolution and mediation.

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