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Monday 19 August 2019

Zimbabwe: Military calculates next move after Mugabe loses iron grip on country after 37 years

  • President Robert Mugabe and his family are under house arrest
  • Unprecedented challenge to Mugabe's presidency after 37 years
  • Army Major general says they are targeting only 'criminals around the president'
  • Rift began as Mugabe appeared to be lining up his wife Grace to succeed him
  • Army claims this is not a coup
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe addressing party members with his wife Grace earlier this month. Photo: Getty Images
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe addressing party members with his wife Grace earlier this month. Photo: Getty Images

Kholwani Nyathi, Laura Secorun, Kim Sengupta

Zimbabwe is on a knife edge as negotiations continue between military commanders to find a new leader after the army put President Robert Mugabe and his family under house arrest in what could be a dramatic end to the veteran ruler’s reign.

The army’s move began Tuesday night when dozens of tanks rolled into the outskirts of the capital, Harare, while men in uniform took command of the country’s public TV station.

On Wednesday morning, Zimbabweans woke up to find military vehicles stationed in the capital’s key intersections, blocking access to many government buildings, including Mr Mugabe’s residence.

Later that morning, the military spokesman, Major General SB Moyo, made a televised appearance to reassure the public.

Dressed in military fatigues and reading from a printed statement, he confirmed that Mr Mugabe, 93, was being held in his home but said the president was “safe and sound.” Major General Moyo explained that the army was targeting only “criminals around the president” with the goal of bringing them to justice.

The army's intervention is an unprecedented challenge to a president who has been head of the government for 37 years and whatever happens in the next few days, it will likely lead to the end of his rule.

Zimbabwe Defence Forces Major-General SB Moyo (R) makes an announcement on state broadcaster ZBC, in this still image taken from a November 15, 2017 video. ZBC/Handout via REUTERS
Zimbabwe Defence Forces Major-General SB Moyo (R) makes an announcement on state broadcaster ZBC, in this still image taken from a November 15, 2017 video. ZBC/Handout via REUTERS

The rift stemmed from the Mr Mugabe appears to be manoeuvring his  wife Grace into a position to succeed him. Ms Mugabe is supported by a faction of MPs called G40, but the move was viewed in a dim light by many, particularly after Mr Mugabe forced out his Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had the support of the military, earlier this month.

Known by locals as “The Crocodile,” Mr Mnangagwa is a respected veteran belonged to the “liberation” group that fought for independence in 1980.

For decades, he was also the Zimbabwe's chief spy, acting as the intermediary between the ruling party and the nation’s military and intelligence agencies and he was Mr Mugabe's expected successor for a long time.

The 52-year-old Ms Mugabe publicly expressed her willingness to take on the job of president at the time and called Mr Mnangagwa a “snake” that “must be hit on the head.”

Zimbabweans queue outside a bank to withdraw cash as armed soldiers patrol the streets in Harar on Wednesday
Zimbabweans queue outside a bank to withdraw cash as armed soldiers patrol the streets in Harar on Wednesday
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe addressing party members with his wife Grace earlier this month. Photo: Getty Images
A street scene along Robert Mugabe road in Harare, Tuesday, Nov., 14, 2017.
An armed soldier patrols a street in Harare, Zimbabwe, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. Zimbabwe's army said Wednesday it has President Robert Mugabe and his wife in custody and is securing government offices and patrolling the capital's streets following a night of unrest that included a military takeover of the state broadcaster. (AP Photo)
A man walks past a wall with a graffiti reading "We want garwe (crocodile in Shona language)" referring to sacked vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, on Wednesday in Harare, Zimbabwe
Armed soldiers stand on the road leading to President Robert Mugabe's office in Harare, Zimbabwe Wednesday
A military tank is seen with armed soldiers on the road leading to President Robert Mugabe's office in Harare, Zimbabwe . Photo: AP
Armed soldiers patrol a street in Harare, Zimbabwe
Armed soldiers patrol a street in Harare, Zimbabwe
President Robert Mugabe kissing his wife and first lady Grace Mugabe during the country's 37th Independence Day celebrations at the National Sports Stadium in Harare. Photo: AFP PHOTO / Jekesai NJIKIZANAJEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images
President Robert Mugabe pictured with General Constantino Chiwenga in Harare, in 2008. Photo: Reuters/Philimon Bulaway
Armed Zimbabwean soldiers sit on top of a military tank in Harare, Zimbabwe
A youth washes a minibus adorned with picture of President Robert Mugabe at a bus terminus in Harare. Photo: Reuters
First Lady Grace Mugabe is making a play for power in Zimbabwe. Photo: Philimon Bulawayo

Read More: Explainer: What is happening in Zimbabwe - is it a coup?

On Monday, Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander Constantino Chiwenga, a key ally of Mr Mnangagwa, had given Mr Mugabe an ultimatum to stop purges of officials linked to the exiled politician - before the military then rolled in, taking over the state broadcaster ZBC.

On the streets on Harare, it was mostly calm in the wake of the takeover, with the army keen to express its benign intentions, telling regional leaders its move to seize power was not a coup.

 “The military have reassured us this is not a coup d'etat,” Moussa Faki Mahamat, the head of the African Union commission. "The African Union is against any unconstitutional change of government".

Businesses were open and civilians were slowly returning to the streets. There was some panic-buying of supplies like bread and sugar.

The political instability is likely to worsen the country’s already frail economy. Zimbabwe is struggling to pay for imports and has been suffering from regular cash shortages. That is why citizens queued to withdraw money from Harare’s main banks.

However, there was also a cautious optimism if the military sticks to its word.

Steven Mutero, a newspaper vendor in Harare was celebrating the army takeover saying it was the only way to stop Mr Mugabe from imposing his wife as the next leader.

“I have read about  coups in countries such as Lesotho and Nigeria and military rule is not a good thing but there was no other way for Zimbabwe, ” he said.  “Grace Mugabe was now taking advantage of her old and frail husband to rule  without our consent. It was a soft coup..  l think the move by the army is worth celebrating."

There were rumours that Ms Mugabe may have fled the country in the wake of the actions by the military, but the army insisted she was under house arrest with her husband.

She had faced constant bad press about her lavish lifestyle and extravagant purchases – including a penthouse and a Rolls Royce – which had landed her with the nickname “Gucci Grace” as well as the ire of many citizens.

In August, a model alleged that she had assaulted her with an extension cord in a luxury apartment in Johannesburg. The model pressed charges, which Ms Mugabe denied before being granted diplomatic immunity.

Read More: Full statement: Military address Zimbabwe in live address on state TV

Sources in Zimbabwe said the military top brass were working frantically to put together a transitional authority that will take Zimbabwe to elections.

Mr Mnangagwa, who fled to South Africa last week is the military’s preferred candidate to take over from Mr Mugabe and there were indications a couple of former senior Zanu PF leaders had been sounded out for leading roles in the transition.

Leading opposition leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, sources said, was also being courted by the generals to deputise Mr Mnangagwa. 

Mr Tsvangirai worked with Mr Mugabe between 2009 and 2013 in a unity government that temporarily revived Zimbabwe’s economy, he has been in South African hospital for close to a month over an illness.

Opposition politicians appeared to also cautiously welcome the army intervention as Zimbabweans on social media were celebrating the apparent fall of Ms Mugabe

Zimbabwe's longtime leader Robert Mugabe (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)
Zimbabwe's longtime leader Robert Mugabe (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)

“Are the starving and suffering people of Zimbabwe expected to feel sorry for Mugabe and his dynasty? “Certainly not,”  said former deputy prime minister Arthur Mutambara.

“What is important now is to answer the question: ‘How do we collectively work together to reconstruct our country from the ashes that President Mugabe has bequeathed us.

“It is time for thorough reflection, national leadership, vision and strategy.”

Read More: Zimbabwe army denies coup as they take control of Harare, says President Mugabe is 'safe'

Could this military takeover truly lead to democratic transition? It’s not a given, says Jeffrey Smith. The executive director of the pro-democracy non profit Vanguard Africa told The Independent that “Zimbabwe's military has long been a chief impediment to democratic progress in the country” and a true transition would require them to engage in a “genuine dialogue with civil society and the political opposition.”

What’s certain is that this military takeover is likely to put an end to the mandate of the world’s oldest president and the only one independent Zimbabwe has ever known.

Neighbouring countries will hope for a solution that does not led to violence on the streets, and the UN has also called for a peaceful transition. In the UK Theresa May called for “restraint on all sides” as the situation was "fluid".

She said the Government's primary concern was the safety of UK nationals in the former British colony, and urged expats in Harare to stay “safely at home” until the situation becomes clearer.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called for "free and fair" elections, but said there may be "hope" for a country whose leader has overseen rampant hyperinflation and unemployment, as well as allegations of political suppression and potential human rights abuses.

"There is hope, there is a real chance now that things will change in Zimbabwe but it's by no means a foregone conclusion," he said.

"Nobody wants simply to see the transition from one unelected tyrant to the next,” he added.

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