Zimbabwe is on edge after the military seized control of key facilities in the capital Harare in the night of 14 November 2017. According to a statement aired on the national broadcaster, the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Commission (ZBC), on 15 November, Zanu-PF remains in charge of the government and Robert Mugabe is still the President. Rather the army has claimed it is just intervening to arrest ‘the criminals’ in government who were abusing their positions and misleading the President.
However, despite these claims, it seems the President is being held under house arrest, a fact that appeared confirmed by South African President Jacob Zuma who spoke with Mugabe later on 15 November. Zuma added that Mugabe appeared to be physically fine.
Events began on the evening of 14 November when four armed personnel carriers were seen driving towards Harare and on to the Presidential headquarters. During the night, armed forces then secured control of the ZBC, the Robert Mugabe International Airport, Parliament and the Supreme Court building. However, the roots of the crisis lie in the long-running factionalism within Zanu-PF between the so-called Lacoste faction led by former Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the G40 faction of younger leaders led by the First Lady Grace Mugabe – who appears to have fled Zimbabwe for Namibia.
The G40 faction has been in the ascendency for some time and recently made a significant power play by convincing Mugabe to fire Mnangagwa and expel him from the party. This move was controversial and widely condemned by Mnangagwa’s followers, many of whom are top military leaders. It was rumoured that at the same time Mugabe tried to remove the head of the military, General Constantino Chiwenga, but he simply refused to vacate his position. The days after Mnangagwa’s firing were marked by widespread political tensions within Zanu-PF and Zimbabwe.
On 13 November, Chiwenga called a press conference attended by 90 of the military’s top officials where which he issued a statement of alarm at Mnangagwa’s firing and what the military saw as an ongoing ‘purge’ of liberation-era leaders in Zanu-PF. Chiwenga added that the military would intervene in the ongoing factionalism if it felt it had to. Which it did the following day.
This military intervention marks a watershed moment for Zimbabwe and the 93-year old Mugabe who has ruled the country since its independence in 1980 and his 37-year rule loks near its end. However, the country’s path forward remains unclear.
The regional response to this coup has been muted, Zuma, speaking as both South African President and the current head of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) released a statement of concern calling for calm and warning against any ‘unconstitutional change of government. However, unlike when similar incidents occurred in Lesotho or Madagascar, no emergency meeting of SADC heads of state has been called. Zuma did try to send a delegation to Zimbabwe consisting of South Africa’s Defence and State Security Ministers to observe the situation on the evening of 15 November, but they were denied entrance to the country.
This tepid response owes much to the fact this was essentially a ‘soft coup’ ‒ no one was killed and the ruling party is ostensibly still in charge. In addition, the Zimbabwe Defence Force (ZDF) has taken effort to avoid using any language associated with coups; has ensured that events are opaque; and has repeatedly stated that Mugabe remains President and that this was an emergency anti-crime operation. Further, neither Mugabe himself, nor any major high-ranking member of the Zimbabwean government, has publicly condemned the military action and called for intervention. These factors allow SADC some wiggle-room when addressing this crisis. Most SADC members have no desire to deploy military forces to Zimbabwe which would be a significantly more difficult situation than Lesotho. In addition, Zimbabwe has been a difficulty within SADC for some time and Grace Mugabe and the G40 are widely disliked by the regional leaders; accordingly, some members will have privately welcomed the change.
This crisis will continue to unfold in the coming days and the military will remain deployed on the streets of Harare with heightened security at key locations such as the Presidential residence, the airport, and the ZBC. The coup leaders will soon have to make public announcements about the country’s future and SADC and the African Union will have to meet to discuss how to address this crisis. A likely course of action will be the announcement of an interim government and the return of Mnangagwa to a leadership position. Rumours are also circulating that the military has reached out to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to help form this transitional government pending a general election.
However, the situation remains fluid and the security situation unstable amid the possibility that the military will develop a liking for power and not hand it over. This scenario would test SADC’s resolved and legitimacy as the regional body would need to intervene or risk suffering significant reputational damage.