Mugabe’s rule appears over as Zimbabwe military takes charge

President of 37 years under house arrest as army moves to remove ‘criminals’ around him

Zimbabwe's military has confirmed that it had seized power in a targeted assault on 'criminals' around President Robert Mugabe, but gave assurances that the 93-year-old leader and his family were 'safe and sound'. Video: Reuters


Robert Mugabe’s four decades of autocratic rule over Zimbabwe appeared to be at an end after the army seized control of the country on Wednesday and put one of the world’s longest-serving rulers under house arrest in the capital Harare.

The army moved in the early morning hours, taking control of state broadcasting and the capital’s main thoroughfares, saying it had been forced into action to remove “criminals” around the president and insisting Mr Mugabe and his family were in a “safe and secure place”.

“We are targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country,” said Major General SB Moyo, the military spokesman. “As soon as we have accomplished our mission we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”

The military action came a week after Mr Mugabe (93), sacked Emmerson Mnangagwa, his vice-president and a veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation fight, in a move that appeared to put Grace Mugabe (52) on course to succeed her ailing husband. Mr Mnangagwa had fled to South Africa and said he would challenge the rule of Mr Mugabe, who was using the ruling Zanu-PF as his “personal property”.

In a rare press conference on Monday, General Constantino Chiwenga, the army commander and an ally of Mr Mnangagwa, had said the military would not “hesitate to step in” to “protect the revolution”. Many interpreted his statement as a warning against Mr Mugabe, who has ruled the southern African nation since independence from Britain in 1980.

Soldiers in Harare stood guard outside the state television building through Wednesday and manned a checkpoint at the airport where flights were running normally. Army vehicles blocked off a handful of streets in the city centre. State television and radio played music after normal broadcasting was suspended.

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, spoke to Mr Mugabe 93, on Wednesday, and said he “indicated that he was confined to his home but said that he was fine”.

Rounding up allies

There were indications the military was rounding up political allies of Ms Mugabe within the ruling Zanu-PF, a group of younger cadres who sided against Mr Mnangagwa and his fellow liberation-era bloc in the bitter succession battle.

Among those close to Ms Mugabe who were arrested by soldiers, according to people in Harare familiar with the military’s actions, were Ignatius Chombo, the finance minister, and Kudzai Chipanga, the head of Zanu-PF’s youth league, who had issued a statement attacking Gen Chiwenga on Tuesday.

Military officers and veterans of the liberation war had become ever more concerned at the rise of Ms Mugabe in Zanu-PF during the past three years. A former secretary to the president, Ms Mugabe has been at the centre of a toxic succession battle in Zanu-PF that escalated as the president’s health has deteriorated.

Known as “Gucci Grace” because of her penchant for shopping, the flamboyant first lady was believed by many to wield growing influence over Mr Mugabe as he became frail, marginalising party veterans.

Her main rival in the succession race had been Mr Mnangagwa, a former security chief known as “the Crocodile” and backed by veterans of the liberation war.

President Robert Mugabe: confined to his home after a night of unrest in Zimbabwe. File photograph: AFP/Getty Images
President Robert Mugabe: confined to his home after a night of unrest in Zimbabwe. File photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Political analysts expect the military to re-appoint him as vice-president with effective control over the government.

“This is a correction of a state that was careening off the cliff,” Chris Mutsvangwa, leader of the liberation war veterans, an influential group, told Reuters. “It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife.”

Lloyd Msipa, an analyst at the Africa Public Policy Research Institute, said Gen Chiwenga did not want to move against Mr Mugabe himself, largely because of their history together in the liberation struggle.

‘Protecting you’

Instead, he was portraying his actions as a move against those around the president who had been siphoning off the country’s wealth, said Mr Msipa. “They are saying to Mr Mugabe, ‘we are actually protecting you from yourself. These youngsters with their superfast brains and their technology are getting you to sign all these documents’.”

Mr Msipa, who knows Mr Mnangagwa personally, said the former vice-president was preparing to fly into Manyame air base, a military facility in Harare.

“This is the man they need for the transition from Mugabe to something else,” he said.

Mr Mugabe, Zanu-PF’s dominant figure for decades, had said he would lead the party into presidential elections next year. But analysts say the party may now use a conference scheduled for next month to formally elect a new leader.

Witnesses reported explosions in the northern suburbs of Harare overnight, but the only signs of the coup on Wednesday were roadblocks on streets that were abnormally quiet.

Zimbabwe defence forces major-general SB Moyo (right) makes an announcement on state broadcaster ZBC. Photograph: Reuters
Zimbabwe defence forces major-general SB Moyo (right) makes an announcement on state broadcaster ZBC. Photograph: Reuters

In Washington, the state department said: “The US government encourages all Zimbabweans to approach disputes calmly and peacefully while following democratic, transparent and constitutional processes for resolving differences.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017