UNISWA LECTURER: IT WAS A COUP
An important component for the study of African constitutional history and politics is usually the types of regime change that have been taking place in the continent since independence. I have studied types of coup d’états in detail as a scholar of constitutional history and I am still lost as to how to best describe the Zimbabwean coup. As the dust starts settling from the overt military intervention in Zimbabwean politics that resulted in the resignation of Robert Mugabe, many questions start arising which need answers. Is the November coup d’état in Zimbabwe real or it is just a political theatre performance? This question opens the floodgates on the debate on the type of coup that took place in Zimbabwe which I will endeavour to unpack.
A STRANGE NEW TYPE OF COUP D’ETAT
Many political observers are still to classify the strange type of coup d’état that took place in Zimbabwe because it is unprecedented in the history of coups. The coup does not look like a coup yet it is a coup. African scholars know what coup d’états look like. Apart from the ‘Arab Spring’ coup d’états in Egypt and Tunisia in the 2000s, there have been other successful coups in recent years in Niger (2010), Guinea-Bissau (2012) and Mali (2012). Typically; when the army takes power in Africa, a military announcement is made followed by martial music, the suspension of the constitution, the dissolution of the government and Parliament, the imposition of a dawn to dusk curfew, massive arrests etc.
Up to this point there have been no violent crackdowns and no appointment of a military junta to take control of the levers of power, no bloodshed and no assassinations. The Zim coup does not display the typical characteristics of coups in Africa. As a matter of fact, this is not how coups typically unfold in Africa.
Even after the Zim coup, a lot of reverence and care continue to be displayed towards Robert Mugabe and he has been allowed to speak out to the media, make public appearance and enjoy high level visits by dignitaries. This made CNN to describe Zimbabwe’s military takeover as “the world’s strangest coup”. In fact, the world had never seen anything thing like this before. It would appear that a coup d’état has almost certainly been staged in Zimbabwe with Mugabe’s resignation. The Zim army denies it and continues to downplay it. Let us establish the drama of this strange type of coup d’état and the way it has unfolded so far.
TREATMENT OF ROBERT MUGABE AFTER THE COUP
When a coup d’état takes place in Africa, the incumbent escapes, if he is lucky, is arrested and shot if he is unlucky, or is tried and jailed for ‘high treason”. When Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings staged a military coup in Ghana in 1979, three of Ghana’s former heads of state and some top military officers were executed for economic crimes. The economic crimes that were perpetuated by Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF are glaring but no allusion was made to them.
A DAY AFTER THE COUP
A day after the military had seized control in the capital, Mugabe was visited by the top military officers, South African envoys and a catholic priest and treated with all dignity. Robert Mugabe, whom the military supposedly wrestled from power, was shown casually chatting with his captors, while protesters were posing for selfies with soldiers on the streets. The military did not parade Mugabe in handcuffs. They were negotiating for his resignation and he was resisting. Ridiculous! He had the guts to resist! Photographs were published showing Mugabe in an intimate sitting room with army leader Commander General Constantino Chiwenga, two South African envoys, and Catholic priest Fidelis Mukonori, who was reported to have been brokering talks for a transitional government. The Zimbabwean military can simply be described as “very civilised” and “very unmilitary” in their handling of Robert Mugabe.
ROBERT MUGABE ATTENDING A GRADUATION CEREMONY AFTER HIS OVERTHROW
emony after his overthrow. This TV show was one of the least conventional events of the military takeover. Mugabe unexpected emergence from house arrest to conduct a public engagement at a university graduation ceremony in Harare sent confusing signals that he was a freeman and perhaps still in charge. Mugabe’s arrived at Zimbabwe Open University in a blue-and-yellow gown, accompanied by his security detail, and conferred degrees upon a parade of students. Of course, the military authorised and publicised this event to convey the impression that business was continuing as usual in Harare, thereby downplaying the reality that Mugabe was unable to do anything without the approval of military commanders.
THE BIGGEST CONCESSION TO MUGABE
Perhaps the biggest concession by the coup leaders was the granting of immunity from prosecution to Robert Mugabe and his whole family, including the wife.
The military assured Mugabe that his safety would be protected in his home country as part of the deal that led to his resignation. Mugabe expressed this wish to die in Zimbabwe and stated that he had no plans to live in exile. The military is really incredibly benevolent to Mugabe, probably because they are of the same political fraternity.
THE SWEARING-IN OF 75 YEARS OLD EMMERSON MNANGAGWA AS ZIMBABWE’S PRESIDENT
To crown it all, the swearing in of 75 years old Emmerson Mnangagwa as Zimbabwe’s President on Friday as President speaks volumes. Did the military prefer him over other candidates? Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s Vice President and he fled Zimbabwe after being fired on November 6. In a speech he made upon his return on Wednesday 22 November 2017 night outside ruling party headquarters, he promised “a new, unfolding democracy” and efforts to rebuild a shattered economy. But he also recited slogans from the ruling ZANU-PF party, declaring death to “enemies,” which sent a bad signal to the opposition and the civil society. Mnangagwa is expected to serve Mugabe’s remaining term until elections at some point next year. So one ZANU-PF official goes, another ZANU-PF official replaces him. After having presented a timeline of events in Zimbabwe since the arrival of the military on the political scene, how can their actions be best explained?
THE NAME OF THE ZIMBABWEAN COUP D’ETAT: A PALACE COUP/IN-HOUSE COUP
Mcdonald Lewanika, of London School of Economics, who is an authoritative voice on Zimbabwean politics, unmistakably states that a coup has taken place in Zimbabwe. He identifies two types of coups: a guardian coup and veto coup. A guardian coup d’état is one where the military steps in to deal with poor or bad governance while a veto coup which is one calculated to pre-empt imminent threats to the interests of the military establishment.
The two types of coups fit properly in the Zimbabwean contest because there was bad governance and the interests of certain members of the ZANU-PF and military were at stake. But I prefer a more encompassing term-a palace coup d’état. According to Bassong (2005) a palace coup takes place within political structures of existing regimes and it involves the plotting of rivals of the president within the ruling group. In the case of Zimbabwe; the plotting was within the ZANU-PF. The objective of palace coups is the replacement of the president through apparent constitutional or unconstitutional action. Assassinations may also be a key feature of palace coups although this has not taken place in Zimbabwe. The Zim coup is described as a palace coup because it emanated from fierce inhouse fighting within the ruling ZANUPF. There were two factions within the ZANU-PF fighting intensely for hegemony and succession of the ailing 93-year-old Robert Mugabe- the G40 faction of ZANU-PF said to be led by Zimbabwe’s former first lady, Grace Mugabe and the pro- Mnangagwa faction that enjoyed the support of the military.
The axing of Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s vice-president on November 6, 2017, in favour of his wife being planned to succeed him, forced the military into action. The coup is therefore an essentially Zanu-PF problem. It is a typical type of in-house fighting that characterises African politics.
The military and ZANU-PF politicians started conspiring to remove Mugabe from power and sought external support. China, which has heavy investments in Zimbabwe, reportedly gave its “tacit approval” to the military’s coup and the United States was informed but played no role in the plan. Even the Commander of the Defence Forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, sensed danger from Robert Mugabe and had to act accordingly. The General is reported to have travelled to China and other countries in southern Africa to “consolidate the assurances” of support for the impending coup.
The backers insisted that there should be no bloodshed and that Mugabe’s overthrow should not be characterised as a coup. That is why the Zimbabwean military continue to insist it is not a coup.
THE DANGERS OF THE ZIMBABWEAN PALACE COUP
The danger of a Zim palace coup lies in the fact that its agenda is very limited to the settlement of political scores among the ruling elite of the ZANUPF. The Zimbabwean national economy, which is an unqualified disaster, is not the preoccupation of the coup leaders so far.
The Zimbabwean economy has been totally destroyed by Mugabe and his ZANU-PF forcing millions to run away from their country to look for survival elsewhere.
That is why the People’s Rainbow Coalition (PRC) Secretary-General, Gorden Moyo, while welcoming the coup, expressed worries that this might just be a “dry-cleaning” process for Zanu PF.
The PRC fears that military intervention might strengthen Zanu PF’s power base while weakening the opposition and doing nothing for the country’s economy like Robert Mugabe. Let us be optimistic and hope for the best for Zimbabwe.
Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe resigned after military action which army Commander General Constantino Chiwenga insisted was not a coup, making way for his fired deputy Emerson Mnangangwa to succeed him.