Mugabe’s last stand? How Zimbabwe’s military took the reins of power

Coup’s surgical nature points to sacked vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa

Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans gather in the capital, calling on president Robert Mugabe to step down days after a military takeover placed him under house arrest. Video: Reuters

When the Zimbabwean army rolled into Harare in the early hours of Wednesday, in what turned out to be a military takeover, most of the residents of Zimbabwe's capital, including those targeted, were taken by surprise.

Rumours on social media that the head of the defence forces, Constantino Chiwenga, was following through on threats he made on Monday to deal with those involved in "treacherous shenanigans" in the ruling Zanu-PF party had been largely dismissed.

On Tuesday morning I travelled by bus for seven hours from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city, in the south of the country, to Harare, and saw no signs of an imminent military coup. Not even a single soldier.

Later that day, images posted on Whatsapp and Twitter of tank columns and stony-faced soldiers staring from troop carriers on their way to the capital were rejected as fake or dismissed as a show of strength in the ongoing Zanu-PF power struggle.


As it turned out they were much more than that.

Zimbabwean coup: soldiers on a street in Harare on Thursday. Photograph: AP

The battles in the former liberation movement between one group loyal to the first lady, Grace Mugabe, and another aligned with Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa had escalated last week when President Robert Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa for displaying "traits of disloyalty". Mnangagwa then fled the country, after receiving death threats, but ominously promised to return "soon" to lead the nation.

This threat was nothing new in the cut and thrust of Zanu-PF politics. Even so, no one had managed to oust the wily Mugabe since he came to power, in 1980. Many saw Mnangagwa’s warning as bluster.

In an interview with The Irish Times on Monday, the former freedom fighter and Movement for Democratic Change MP Paul Nyathi dismissed Mnangawa's chances of reversing his fortunes in Zanu-PF, saying that, at 75, he was a spent force. "He is finished, just like Vice-President Joice Mujuru before him," he said. Mugabe removed Mujuru, Mnangagwa's predecessor, from government and Zanu-PF under similar circumstances in 2014.

Zanu-PF purge

Mugabe had already begun to purge Mnangagwa’s supporters from Zanu-PF at national and provincial level – which was what prompted the unprecedented warning from the head of the army. Grace Mugabe had been expected to be installed as one of the country’s two vice-presidents at a special party congress in December.

But those who know Mnangagwa, who is closely aligned with Gen Chiwenga, say he has earned the nickname Crocodile for his ruthlessness and ability to strike unexpectedly. And both traits were evident in the surgical military action that ensued.

Zimbabwean coup: Robert and Grace Mugabe at a Zanu-PF rally on November 8. Photograph: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

Harare’s residents awoke on Wednesday to hear that Robert and Grace Mugabe were under house arrest and that at least three government ministers aligned to a Zanu-PF faction called Generation 40, or G40, had been arrested for criminal offences.

There had been explosions and gunfire at strategic buildings, but there were no reports of casualties.

Trócaire's director in Zimbabwe, Sarah McCann, said that, having gone to bed on Tuesday feeling slightly nervous, the following morning was like waking up in a different country. "I have been in Zimbabwe for two years, and while the country faces huge issues of poverty and human-rights abuses, nobody predicted the events of the past week," she said.

“Wednesday morning was really tense and uncertain. It all feels like a blur looking back. It was a barrage of reports of the army takeover, the roads and airport being blocked, the heavy military presence in the streets of Harare, that Mugabe was confined to his house.”

When asked what he thought of the night’s developments, Lovemore Moyo, a 53-year-old taxi driver, said the widely disliked first lady and her supporters, who are the up-and-coming generation in Zanu-PF, had got what they deserved. “They have no respect for those who fought for our freedom” from colonial rule. “They are thieves who do not care for the people,” he said.

As Wednesday wore on it became apparent that Harare was not on full lockdown, and although there was a heavy military presence people who ventured outside were allowed go about their business.

Zimbabwean coup: Gen SB Moyo appears on television on Wednesday to say the army wanted to cleanse criminal elements from the ruling Zanu-PF party. Photograph: ZBC via Reuters

“Criminal elements”

The army declared that its actions were not a military coup but a cleansing of criminal elements from the ruling party.

That the day passed with little or no violence was a huge relief, McCann said. “The fears and uncertainty of Wednesday turned to hope on Thursday morning, then fear again by Thursday evening that there hadn’t been a breakthrough. What would happen? What will happen? Will it be okay? Will it be peaceful? We still don’t know.”

That little detail emerged of the behind-the-scenes negotiations appeared to stoke suspicion and frustration among some Zimbabweans. Lynnette Mudehwe, a 35-year-old social activist, said she believed a conspiracy of the "grandest order" was taking place behind closed doors.

“This is just the strengthening of Zanu-PF,” she said, adding: “There is going to be a pattern, just wait and see. Next we will have a GNU” – government of national unity – “and after this Zanu-PF will have recovered. And we will have lost the time in which we should have proper action. If elections went ahead next year Zanu-PF would be very weak” – because of factionalism – “and without Mnangagwa to oversee its campaign strategy the party might not win.”

Harare resident Linda Masarira worried that her fellow countrymen and -women would not question the outcome of negotiations, because it would at least likely end Mugabe's rule. She said there are serious question marks over Mnangagwa's fitness to replace Mugabe, because he is part of the old Zanu-PF regime and has been accused of human-rights abuses.

Zimbabweans “will just embrace the change. They don’t think of the repercussions or how it will affect the future. But, look, the army does not have the power to arrest these ministers. These are things we have to question, because next it will be us who are treated like this. What is the best outcome over the next few days? We don’t know. The politicians seem to be just negotiating among themselves,” she said.

Zimbabwean coup: newspaper headlines in Harare on Friday. Photograph: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

“Accounting for criminals”

In an attempt to quell growing concerns that the takeover could descend into chaos, the Zimbabwean army said on Friday morning that it has made significant progress in “accounting for criminals” around Mugabe.

In a live television address an army spokesman said they were continuing to discuss "the way forward" with the president. Sources told The Irish Times that the 93-year-old had agreed to stand aside, but only next year, while the army wanted him to officially relinquish power immediately.

The ageing president was also rolled out before the TV cameras to show the world he is still alive. His wife’s whereabouts remain unknown, however.

Despite these attempts to allay the nation's concerns, Freddy Chereni from south Harare had decided that he wanted a totally new leadership group installed and that Zanu-PF must not be involved in whatever transitional arrangement comes next. "They have been in power since the 1980s, and it is time to go. The people in Zanu-PF have gained so much wealth over the last years while we have been left to suffer. We have nothing. We want free and fair elections, not more of the same."