Updated 9:45 a.m. ET, November 17, 2017
In the wake of a military coup, President Robert Mugabe appears to be resisting calls to resign as negotiations between the army and the aging president are underway. And the military appears to be giving him some room to leave with dignity—if indeed he retires at all.
On Friday, Mugabe attended a university graduation ceremony in his first public appearance since the army placed him under de-facto house arrest. Mugabe holds the title of chancellor at Zimbabwe’s Open University and his presence at its graduation is an annual tradition.
Few expected he would be allowed to go under the current circumstances, but the army is going to great lengths to maintain a façade of normalcy as its leaders continue to deny that a coup is underway, allowing Mugabe to stride down the university graduation’s red carpet singing the national anthem before opening the ceremony.
The country’s influential National Liberation War Veterans Association is not as patient as the army. Its current leader, Christopher Mutsvangwa, urged people to take to the streets to protest on Saturday if Mugabe did not step down immediately. “We can finish the job which the army started,” he told journalists in Harare. “There is no going back about Mugabe. He must leave.”
Since Wednesday morning, when the army took control of the state radio and television airwaves, Zimbabweans have waited anxiously to see what would become of the 93-year-old head of state and his 52-year-old wife, Grace Mugabe, who was a likely candidate to succeed him.
The military’s actions were major surprise to the country and the continent as Robert Mugabe had held a tight grip on Zimbabwe for 37 years and enjoyed the support of the military for the duration of his rule. But hopes have waned that these events will lead to a true democratic opening in a nation where Mugabe fought for the independence granted in 1980, then became a ruthless strongman. Put bluntly, the major battle for succession may come down to a struggle between Mugabe’s former comrades in arms or his companion in bed, with only a narrow space open, if one exists at all, for the democratic opposition.
On Tuesday night, a week after Mugabe dismissed Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the military-endorsed candidate to succeed Mugabe and another veteran of the independence struggle, armored vehicles were spotted moving toward the capital. The day before, the Zimbabwe Defense Forces commander, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, had held a press conference in which he said the army was prepared to intervene if war veterans like Mnangagwa continued to be purged from government.
“Chiwenga knew that his head was next on the block and so he threw down the gauntlet to Mugabe in that statement and waited to see who would blink first,” says Derek Matyszak, senior research consultant with the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
By early Wednesday morning, Chiwenga was done waiting. As whispers of the possibility of a military action swept through Harare, the army seized control of state-run media ZBC before dawn broke, announcing that the army was in the capital “targeting criminals around [Mugabe.]” The military carefully avoided using the term coup, though their intent to remove either Mugabe or his wife was self-evident.
On Thursday, Mugabe met with Gen. Chiwenga along with two envoys from South Africa and a priest close to the president, reportedly to discuss the terms by which he would step down and a new leader of the country would assume power. But after a day of negotiations, the 93-year-old does not seem to be willing to cede power quickly, as many had hoped he would.
Early Friday morning, the army broadcast a statement on national television advising that they had “accounted for some criminals around [Mugabe] in order to bring them to justice,” likely referring to roughly a dozen senior officials, most of whom are supporters of Grace Mugabe’s bid for the presidency, who have been arrested over the last two days. The army plans to lay the groundwork for President Mugabe’s impeachment next week if he does not agree to step down, one senior party source told Reuters.
For now, negotiations will resume between the army and Mugabe, whose firing of Mnangagwa was the culmination of a years-long division among the ruling ZANU-PF party over who should succeed Mr. Mugabe.
On one side was the president’s wife, Grace Mugabe, who enjoyed support from youth members of the ZANU-PF, dubbed Generation 40 or G40, because they are mostly under 40 years old and did not fight during the liberation war. Opposing Mrs. Mugabe was Vice President Mnangagwa, or “the crocodile,” and his “Lacoste,” supporters, comprised mostly of war veterans like Mnangagwa and active members of the military.
For years, Mnangagwa was seen as Mugabe’s only likely successor until Grace Mugabe revealed her hopes to ascend to the presidency in 2014, a plan many speculated was born from an instinct to survive after the demise of her husband–reviled by many for plummeting the country into economic disaster–as much as an instinct to lead. But even with the state’s mouthpiece behind her, Mrs. Mugabe couldn’t seem to avoid scandals and controversies that tarnished her three-year-long bid for the presidency.
In October 2016, she publicly denied having attempted to murder then-Vice President Mnangagwa after he claimed he was poisoned during a rally in August. In September this year, she allegedly assaulted a young model in South Africa, reinforcing a reputation for angry outbursts first earned in 2009, when she allegedly punched a British photographer repeatedly in the face after he took her picture in Hong Kong.
Her reputation for spending money lavishly, which earned her the derisive nickname “Gucci Grace,” also raised questions about how in touch she is with the public—which has long suffered from her husband’s disastrous policies—putting the state on the brink of economic collapse. And without a history of having fought during the liberation war, she lacked support from the veterans of the military who wield significant power within the country.
By Wednesday evening, many speculated that Thursday’s negotiations would be as much about deciding the fate of Grace Mugabe as about convincing the president to step down. That night, the streets of Harare remained quiet, with most citizens opting to remain at their homes, waiting.
But as the prospect of the country’s long-time dictator finally ceding power inspired excitement for many Zimbabweans, experts warned that even if Mugabe gave up his power, a Zimbabwe under Mnangagwa may be just as bad—if not worse—than one under Mugabe.
“What’s getting lost in the euphoria of seeing the end of Mugabe is that the battle taking place is not a battle between good and evil. It’s a battle between the very bad and the much worse,” says Matyszak.
The very bad in this power struggle is Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is known as a ruthless soldier-turned-politician whose military tactics have often spilled into his politics. The “crocodile” sobriquet suggests his cold-blooded military prowess. When the war for independence ended in 1980 and the British colony of Rhodesia became the nation of Zimbabwe under Mugabe, Mnangagwa was appointed national security minister in charge of the Central Intelligence Organization. He served in that position through the 1980s, during which time Mnangagwa helped orchestrate the Gukurahundi massacres in which roughly 20,000 Zimbabweans were killed as the military crushed political dissidents and rivals.
In the years that followed, the stains on Mnangagwa’s reputation continued to mount. In 2001, he was named in a U.N. report as the orchestrator of ZANU-PF’s commercial activities, including allegedly looting diamonds, gold, and other minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Zimbabwean forces intervened to protect the national government there. Seven years later, after Mugabe lost the first round of the 2008 presidential election, Mnangagwa allegedly masterminded a campaign of violence against opposition supporters carried out by the military and state security organizations. The intimidation campaign left hundreds dead and thousands displaced.
Mnangagwa reportedly returned to Zimbabwe in the wake of the coup along with Morgan Tsvangirai, a the most prominent leader of the political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change. Tsvangirai served as prime minister from 2009 to 2013 after receiving wide support from opposition voters in the 2008 elections, and was abroad receiving cancer treatment prior to the coup. It is rumored that Tsvangirai is speaking with military leaders and Mnangagwa about the possibility of transitional government that includes the opposition.
Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the future of the country remains uncertain. Zimbabwe is on the brink of economic collapse, in large part due to Mugabe’s land redistribution scheme in the early 2000s, in which the government forcibly seized white-owned commercial farmland and redistributed it to black-only citizens who often had little to no agricultural expertise. The severe export losses meant that by 2008 Zimbabwe was in economic crisis, with hyperinflation over a mind-boggling 200 percent. In 2009, nearly 95 percent of the country was unemployed, according to a report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In the years since, although most people have switched to using dollars, the situation has only deteriorated further with the country yet again experiencing world record rates of hyperinflation.
If Mnangagwa does take power, it’s unclear whether he can reverse this economic downfall, especially given that the military, which will have installed him, will likely ask for compensation for doing so—if that wasn’t already their motivation.
“There are plenty of self-interested military officers who have benefited from the patronage regime of the ZANU-PF government and didn’t want to see someone like Grace Mugabe take power who might cut them out of those economic opportunities,” says Philip Martin, a Ph.D candidate at MIT whose research has focused on Zimbabwe’s politics.
The Zimbabwean military has long been considered the true power holder in the ZANU-PF and this coup not only confirms those suspicions, but also raises questions as to how the army’s recent actions will affect any possibility of democracy left in the coup’s wake.
“The historical record of military regimes taking power in Sub-Saharan Africa in the name of restoring good governance and cleaning up corruption has not been good in terms of producing positive change toward democracy or cleaning up corruption,” says Martin. “It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence for the future of Zimbabwe.”
And that poor record isn’t limited to Sub-Saharan Africa. In recent history, nearly every coup carried out on the grounds of a leader’s “failing health” has resulted in more dictatorial regimes coming to power: Saddam Hussein used the ailing Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr’s old age to consolidate power in Iraq prior to forcing the president to resign in 1979; in 1982, Panama President Artistides Royo suddenly quit citing a “sore throat” in what later became evident was a coup d’etat orchestrated by the infamous Manuel Noriega; and in 1987, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali deposed Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba on the grounds of an unfavorable medical report.
In all three cases, the presidents were replaced by former intelligence chiefs. And all of those men became notorious dictators.
Whether Mnangagwa will take power is still unknown. But if he does succeed the aging Mugabe his history suggests “the crocodile” will do whatever it takes to hold on to power.