On the evening of Sunday 19 November, every Zimbabwean with access to a television sat glued to it. Word was that the old man was going to make an announcement. The announcement surely had to be the president’s resignation from power.
That evening, the world’s cameras turned to Robert Mugabe, the 93-year-old larger than life dictator who had dominated every facet of political and economic life for 37 years. Small areas of grey hair were visible, the rest dyed black to hide his age. He was hunched into his chair, almost sinking into it, and surrounded by calm looking generals of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF).
As the old man’s slurred speech ended anticipation turned to shock. When he started talking about chairing the next meeting of his party’s congress the following month, shock turned to horror. The old man was not offering to resign!
Mugabe was determined to remain president. Apart from the small cabal called G40 which was now tightly knitted around him with the sole intention of manipulating the transfer of power from the old man to his young wife, not a living known soul wanted Robert Mugabe as president of Zimbabwe. He had done enough damage.
Twenty-two hours earlier, Zimbabwe’s ruling party Central Committee members held a meeting in Harare. The committee had not only expelled Grace from the party, but Mugabe himself had been given until twelve midday on Monday 20 November to tender his resignation to the speaker of parliament or else face impeachment. This was unprecedented in the last three decades of Zimbabwe. Until then, Mugabe’s power had been absolute.
Zimbabwe tanks: The day the military rolled in
On Tuesday, 14 November, military trucks and tankers started quietly appearing in the streets of Harare. So stealthily was this done that no alarms were raised.
The next day, Mugabe’s finance minister, Ignatius Chombo, minister of higher education, Jonathan Moyo, and minister of local government, Saviour Kasukuwere, key members of the G40 cabal, are arrested and kept in custody. Miraculously, the only gunshots fired were at the house of Chombo, whose foreign security company personnel fired at the soldiers. Two people died in combat that night. Other than that, Wednesday went by quietly with soldiers and military trucks on the streets.
Around 8pm, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation stopped its usual programmes and the imposing figure of General Guveya Constantine Chiwenga greeted the country. His message was crisp and sharp. The president was fine and there was no military takeover.
The nation (and indeed the world) was confused about the coup that the general insisted was ‘not a coup’. This was exacerbated by past behaviour of the ZDF. The army had unleashed extreme brutality on the people of Matabeleland in the Gukurahundi atrocities in the early 80s. The ZDF had also been at the forefront of Operation Murambatsvina, in which hundreds of thousands of people lost their urban homes as a way to decimate the political stronghold of the Zimbabwean opposition party. When Robert Mugabe lost the 2008 national elections, it was the army that unleashed violence on the rural communities, forcing them to vote for Robert Mugabe in the presidential run-off which allowed Mugabe to stay in power. The ZDF was not just mistrusted. It was hated. Now their tanks and trucks and armed men were everywhere.
Grace Mugabe: Her venomous attacks inflamed a fractured party
Christopher Mutsvangwa was the boisterous leader of the Zimbabwe War Veterans Association and one-time strong Mugabe ally. Mutsvangwa had been throughout 2016 and 2017 the one most vocal critic of Grace Mugabe and her husband Robert together with their G40 cabal. These veterans of the armed struggle against colonial rule had been at the forefront of harassing the opposition to Mugabe’s party and even more prominently, they had been Mugabe’s most potent tool in his destructive war against the white farming community in early 2000. They had of course been rewarded with jobs in the civil service as well as vast tracts of farms previously owned by whites, almost all of which now lie idle.
The interests of Mugabe and the war vets had diverged when it dawned on them that Mugabe had dumped them in favour of his wife to take over leadership of the party. The war veterans had gone on the offensive, stating openly that a ‘bedroom coup’ was taking place in Zimbabwe and that “political power was not sexually transmitted”. Mugabe acted swiftly. He not only fired Mutsvangwa from his cabinet and party but even tried to sever the war veterans as an organ of Zanu (PF).
That was a big mistake. The tentacles of the war vets are scattered all over the country. Most of them had been ignored by the Mugabe regime and were languishing in poverty while the children of Grace Mugabe gained fame for extravagant lifestyles.
Suddenly they found their voice. They activated their fellow comrades in the army who were feeling equally isolated and threatened by the Grace and G40 juggernaut. The war vets moved to the centre of the political factional fights that were burning at the centre of Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) party. On one side stood Grace and her G40 cabal, now openly gunning to take over the party. On the other side sat Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s deputy who had been his assistant for 50 years. But Mugabe had played his cards too early….it was now obvious that he had chosen his wife to succeed him, and she was going about this with great ambition.
The Crocodile: Emmerson Mnangagwa
On Saturday 4 November at a political rally in the southern City of Bulawayo stadium, the crude personal attacks on Mugabe’s deputy started with Grace. Mnangagwa sat quietly behind them, even clapping away as she tore into him. Grace continued her incessant public attacks on the man who stood in the way of her path to glory. The man they called “the crocodile”, a man who, even her husband it turns out was grossly underestimating. The following day, on Monday November 6, Mugabe fired his deputy, triggering a colossal chain reaction which would lead to one of the most unceremonial exits from power of a man who had been revered by his peers on the continent.
It remains unclear to this day just when the Zimbabwe military establishment decided that enough was enough. The dismissal of their preferred political head left them vulnerable and exposed. The gross miscalculation of Grace and her cabal was their failure to realise that without the military, Mugabe had no power.
Following his dismissal, Mnangagwa left the country immediately, and it was that fortnight where one of the world’s first constitutional coups would be finalised. At the centre of Mnangagwa’s Lacoste faction sits a highly intelligent political engineer, quiet former civil servant named July Moyo.
His political strategies found willing minds in the military. Zimbabwe is reported to have some of the most educated soldiers in the world. A first degree is not enough to get a promotion, a legacy of former General Solomon Mujuru who had arranged hundreds of education scholarships for young former guerrillas who had left school to fight for the country’s independence. It is those young men and women who now command the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and staged a “not coup” coup.
The media was as confused as the citizens that week. When Mutsvangwa and the war veterans addressed the media on Friday 17 November, it was to announce that the military would support citizens going into the street to demand that Mugabe resigns. Unknown to the world, the war veterans, and possibly with the military were busy concluding their mobilisation of the Zanu (PF) provincial party structures to hold meetings and vote for Mugabe’s dismissal from the party. By that Friday, all ten provincial structures of Mugabe’s party had voted to fire him. Their resolutions were almost identical, an observation which led many to believe that the army had been active politically behind the scenes.
Even though Mugabe had dug in his heels on Sunday 19 November, skipping pages of his speech and failing to announce his resignation, relief came on Tuesday 21 November when the dictator announced that he would finally be stepping down. World television cameras spent the night in the streets of Harare, documenting the celebrations. The images that reverberated around the world were of soldiers holding little children dancing atop military tanks in the streets of Harare.
The road ahead
President Mnangagwa was sworn in on Friday 24 November and the new leader has only 10 months to go before the next election. The nation and the world is desperate to see serious economic policy reforms that are investor-friendly and credible electoral systems. If he pushes in this direction, he will shed the party’s dark past and go into the August elections as a strong candidate.
On the other hand, by creating democratic space and reforming the electoral system, he will strengthen the opposition which has consistently won previous elections in all urban constituencies in the country. With space to campaign in rural areas and a genuinely free and fair electoral systems, the opposition might beat Zanu (PF) at the next election. No doubt the world will be watching and a rather delicate road lies ahead.