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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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?


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 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.

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