In the early hours of the 14th of November, the Zimbabwean military took control of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and announced that they had placed President Mugabe under house arrest. This was purportedly to protect him from the ‘criminals’ surrounding him, and it was reiterated that the President and his family were safe. The military has been careful and purposeful in denying that this is a coup, stating that the situation will return to normalcy as soon as they have accomplished their ‘mission’ – although what exactly this entails remains unclear.
Despite the Zimbabwean military repeatedly stating that this is not a coup or a military takeover, commentators both within and without the country have been quick to observe that this seems remarkably like one. Charles Onyango Obbo, the Ugandan journalist, even tweeted that ‘’if it looks like a coup, walks like a coup and quacks like a coup, then it’s a coup”. He is certainly not alone in this opinion, with the African Union itself stating said that it “seems like a coup” and that they remain committed to the country’s legal and political institutions. Commentators within the country seem less sure of this – journalists and citizens alike describing scenes of calm in the country – but this seems to be largely based in the fact that it does not feel to them as if there has not been enough upheaval in the country to justify describing the events as a coup. However,it is not necessary for there to be violence and upheaval for an event to be considered a coup – at its most base, coups simply consist of a sudden, sometimes illegal, seizure of power. The recent events in Zimbabwe seem to fit this definition, as President Mugabe and key members of his cabinet have been removed from power, it happened seemingly overnight and there has been no legal justification for the transfer of power.
As of yet, it is unclear which interpretation of events is accurate, but whatever the eventual outcome, it appears that Mugabe has reached the end of his thirty-year term as president. This is long overdue, as Mugabe has been the president of Zimbabwe since it gained independence from Great Britain in 1980 and over the last decade his rule has become far less popular in the country. President Mugabe’s advanced age, and the question of his successor, seems to be the key motivation behind the events in Zimbabwe. Last Friday his long-term Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who many had viewed as the obvious choice for successor, was dismissed from his post after clashing with President Mugabe’s wife. Following this it seemed as though Grace Mugabe, who has no political experience, is next in line to take control of Zimbabwe in the event of her husband’s death or resignation. It appears that this, plus worsening economic and social conditions in Zimbabwe, may be what persuaded the military to step in to get rid of what they have called ‘enemies’ surrounding the President – a group they might claim includes his wife.
In the week leading up to the ‘coup’, the armed forces commander had demanded that Emmerson Mnangagwa be reinstated, and implied that this was necessary to stop Grace Mugabe from taking power. Mnangawa is notoriously linked to the military commanders, whereas Mrs. Mugabe has been comparatively more hostile and would be more likely to pursue policy less conducive to the military’s interests. Does general opinion in Zimbabwe concur that the end of the Mugabe’s reign can only mean good things for the country’s future? While Mugabe was a revolutionary leader in the 1980s, he quickly consolidated a repressive and corrupt military regime that has embezzled billions of dollars, has kept the country in poverty, and has violently oppressed political freedoms.Some citizens interviewed on the ground have expressed the feeling that after 37 years of Mugabe rule, they have been “liberated” and that a “new Zimbabwe is coming”.
At this point in time it is unclear if these feelings are justified, as no one seems to have a clear idea of what exactly the aims of the coup are, or even how to tell when it is complete. Most commentators seem to agree that Mugabe, who at 93 is the oldest president in the world, will be forced to step down, but it is as yet unclear when this will happen or who his replacement will be.Should the next president be another ZANU-PF (Mugabe’s party) politician, as would be in the case of Mnangagwa taking over,the jubilation evident in the streets over the prospect of a ‘new Zimbabwe’ may be unwarranted. While younger and more liberal than Mugabe, Mnangagwa is a stalwart of the ruling party ZANU – PF, and would be extremely unlikely to create the kind of change desired by those celebrating the ‘coup’.
Whatever the military are calling the events in Zimbabawe – whether it turn out to be a coup or merely a ‘transfer of power’ – what is clear is that this is a pivotal point in Zimbabwe’s history. The next few days will be decisive ones for the trajectory of the nation’s future, as it moves forward for the first time without its revolutionary leader at the helm since colonial rule.
Update: as of the morning of Monday, November 20th, Mugabe has failed to accept resignation, which was expected after the military seemed to take over the capital earlier this week. His party, ZANU-PF, has granted him until Monday to relinquish the presidency or face impeachment from parliament.