Gunshots and at least one explosion could be heard in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, early Wednesday morning, as what appears to be a military putsch continues to unfold.
Military spokesman Major General S.B. Moyo addressed the nation early Wednesday after the army took control of the country’s airwaves, telling Zimbabweans that President Robert Mugabe and his family “are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed.” The target of the military’s action is very likely Grace Mugabe, the 52-year-old wife of the 93-year-old president, who has been positioning herself to succeed him. This seems to be confirmed with reports of the military detaining Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, a leader in the faction of the ruling party loyal to Mrs. Mugabe.
Moyo, insisting that the army’s actions were not a military coup, claimed that army is “only targeting criminals around [Mugabe] who are committing crimes,” although he cautioned that the situation in Zimbabwe “has moved to another level.”
Moyo warned that “any provocation will be met with an appropriate response.”
Civilians have reported gunfire near Mugabe’s private residence in Harare’s Borrowdale neighborhood, and an explosion was heard near the University of Zimbabwe early this morning. The situation in the capital now seems calm, with a handful of soldiers outside the presidential palace the only visible sign of change.
Local media and The Guardian have reported that the former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was fired and subsequently fled last week, landed at the Manyame Airforce Base Wednesday morning. Mnangagwa has been Grace Mugabe’s main rival for the presidential seat and many now think the army means to install him in that position.
Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director of Human Rights Watch, spoke to The Daily Beast over the phone from Harare, saying, “this is completely unprecedented and there is a lot of uncertainty, especially because there is no word from the president or government directly since the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation programming has been taken over by the army.”
Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation is the state-run television and presidential mouthpiece which, since being taken over, is repeating Moyo’s statement punctuated by war songs, according to Mavhinga.
“It is not clear whether the army, police, and intelligence services are all united in this,” Mavhinga says. He fears, though, that the situation “could escalate, we could see things getting a bit out of control. Those around President Mugabe could resist.”
The military move comes after a week of escalating tensions, sparked when President Mugabe fired Mnangagwa on Nov. 6. Mnangagwa, the latest in a series of war veterans to be sacked, was considered a likely successor to the president.
But Mugabe had other plans.
His wife, Grace, has been developing a significant following in the youth wing of the ruling ZANU-PF party and was Mnangagwa’s main rival to take over power when the elderly president dies. Her bid for the presidency began in 2014, when she took control of the ruling ZANU-PF’s women’s league and state propaganda began talking up her political shrewdness.
But after she was booed at a rally on Nov. 4 by suspected Mnangagwa supporters, the furious president held a press conference where he said he could “drop” Mnangagwa “as early as tomorrow.”
“We are not afraid of anyone. We can decide even here,” he told the crowd.
Three days later, Mnangagwa was fired.
The issue of succession had divided the country, with those loyal to Mnangagwa known as the Lacoste faction of ZANU-PF (Mnangagwa’s nickname, like the Lacoste trademark, is “The Crocodile”) while those supporting Grace Mugabe are the G40 faction.
A day after Mnangagwa was fired, the commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, held a press conference at the army headquarters in Harare saying that he and the army were prepared to step in if the ruling party continued to purge officials like Mnangagwa who had fought during the country’s independence war in the 1970s.
“The current purging, which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background, must stop forthwith,” he said while 90 other senior military officials stood alongside him. “We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in.”
After Gen. Chiwenga’s press conference, ZANU-PF released a statement accusing Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct” saying the general’s speech was “calculated to disturb national peace… [and] incite insurrection.”
Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation did not air Chiwenga’s press conference, which the army claims is why it took over the country’s airwaves earlier this morning.
In the wake of the army’s actions, Chris Mutsvangwa, head of Zimbabwe’s war veterans’ group loyal to the former VP, issued a statement from Johannesburg praising Chiwenga for carrying out “a bloodless correction of gross abuse of power,” claiming the army will now institute “genuine democracy” in Zimbabwe.
Now the country awaits the army’s next move, which could mean the end for one of Africa’s longest running dictators. Alternatively, he could be held as a captive figurehead while the military moves to purge those around him, including his wife.
Whatever the army’s plans, its move to take over state-media airwaves and “secure” the president represents a radical change in the country’s politics.
“What’s happening now is potentially enormous because it would represent a break with the last 37 years of political rule in Zimbabwe since its independence,” says Philip Martin, a Ph.D candidate at MIT whose research has focused on Zimbabwe’s political history.
Since independence “there has always been a state ruled by the civilian branch of the ZANU-PF with the military behind it as the keeper of the political party’s power... but now it seems the military is taking charge of political affairs for the first time.”
The vast majority of military leaders are war veterans themselves who believe only a fellow veteran like Mnangagwa can lead the country. Some suspect the army has returned the exiled former vice president to do just that. The only opposition to his installation as leader would come from the ZANU-PF youth, but a tweet from their official account—stating that they “want to commend the military” for using “minimal force” at 9:50 a.m. today—suggests even the youth have fallen in line fast.
Still, the history of military coups to “restore democracy” in Sub-Saharan Africa does not inspire confidence that the Zimbabwean military’s move will result in greater democratic political space.
“Whichever way you look at it, this is the beginning of a new political situation, it could be the beginning of a new political era—the challenge is that military coups don’t bode well for democracy,” says HRW researcher Mavhinga.
“It is not clear what happens next,” he says. “But I can say this is uncharted territory for Zimbabwe.”