What Sparked Zimbabwe’s Succession Coup de Grace?


In the early morning on Wednesday, Nov. 15, Zimbabwe’s military directly intervened in the country’s politics in an unprecedented fashion, placing 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe — in power since 1980 — under house arrest. The army took over the state broadcasting service and announced that it was not seizing power, but rather targeting criminals in Mugabe’s circle “who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice.”

That was a reference to Generation 40 (G40), a faction of Zimbabwe’s ruling party that Mugabe’s wife, Grace, led until last week. Emmerson Mnangagwa, whom President Mugabe fired as vice president earlier this month, led a rival faction known as Lacoste (a reference to Mnangagwa’s nickname, “the Crocodile”), with backing from the military. The two factions of the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), have for years been fighting a long-simmering battle over who will eventually take over from Mugabe.

Because the military has not yet directly removed Mugabe from power, the intervention has sparked debate over whether it technically fits the definition of a military coup. A “soft,” or de facto, coup might be the most apt description at this point. Despite the military’s best efforts to portray the intervention as short of a coup, its actions appear set to precipitate the end of Mugabe’s 37-year reign.

For years, Mugabe’s power was undergirded by a civil-military alliance that was mutually beneficial to all parties. But earlier this month, Mugabe finally went too far in trying to consolidate his power when he sacked his likely successor, Mnangagwa, in favor of his inexperienced and unpopular wife. In doing so, he upset the civil-military balance and paved the way for the military to directly intervene in the succession race and secure its interests. This de facto coup will have long-lasting implications for Zimbabwe’s civil-military relations and democratic trajectory.

As negotiations continued between the military, South African representatives, and Mugabe regarding his ultimate fate, on Saturday tens of thousands took to the streets, embracing soldiers and calling for Mugabe to go. On Sunday, in a remarkable about-face, the ruling party sacked Mugabe as its leader and expelled Grace from the party. Although Mugabe was widely expected to announce his resignation in a live speech later on Sunday, he went off script and refused to step down. After a Monday deadline to resign came and went, the party began impeachment proceedings against Mugabe, which are set to move forward when parliament reopens on Tuesday.

Mugabe’s Military Alliance…

Based on deep ideological and financial ties, for decades Mugabe and the military shared a mutually beneficial relationship. Mugabe relied on Zimbabwe’s military to help him and ZANU-PF win flawed elections, even as the country careened into economic disrepair and hyperinflation.

Starting in 2000, when a credible opposition emerged, the military began to play a more prominent and often violent role, with Mugabe rewarding security officials for their loyalty with positions in ZANU-PF and the state apparatus. But until last week, the party-military alliance always adhered to the principle of civilian supremacy. In August, Mugabe reminded the military of the party’s long-standing principle that “politics shall always lead the gun and not the gun politics.”

Given this enduring party-military alliance, in which Mugabe pulled the strings, many Zimbabwe observers were surprised by last week’s intervention, including yours truly. Indeed, in August I argued that a military coup in Zimbabwe was unlikely, mostly due to ideological and patronage ties between Mugabe and the military. What led Zimbabwe’s military to finally break ranks?

…Finally Turns on Him

While I previously underestimated the risk of a coup in Zimbabwe, in the August article I also noted that if Mugabe handed the reins to his unpopular wife, instead of Mnangagwa, the military’s preferred candidate to succeed the aging leader, the chances of a coup would increase significantly. This precise scenario played out this month, and has proven to be a game-changer.

Over the past several years, Mnangagwa had emerged as the clear front-runner in the succession race, which historically has been a precarious position in Zimbabwe (in 2014 Mugabe fired his then-vice president and likely successor, Joice Mujuru). After coming away largely unscathed from the Mujuru ouster, Mugabe appears to have believed he could do the same with Mnangagwa.

On Nov. 6, after Mnangagwa backers booed Grace at a rally, Mugabe sacked the vice president and a number of his key allies, presumably under pressure from his wife. This action paved the way for Grace to replace Mnangagwa at the party Congress in December. Previously seen as a long shot, Grace suddenly was in the driver’s seat to eventually succeed her frail husband. Reportedly fearing for his life and likely facing treason charges, Mnangagwa fled the country, but ominously vowed to fight back.

Grace and the younger G40 faction have an antagonistic relationship with senior military officials. G40 is unpopular with the military because its members lack the credibility of having fought in Zimbabwe’s liberation war against Rhodesia. Perhaps more importantly, the faction was expected to shake up the military if it assumed power, cutting off senior officials’ access to lucrative patronage networks and upsetting the long-standing civil-military alliance in Zimbabwe.

With the firing of Mnangagwa and his allies, and the writing on the wall for the generals aligned with Mnangagwa, Mugabe directly challenged the military, his most critical base of support. This was a strategic mistake. After years of clever and ruthless maneuvering to stay in power, Mugabe finally overplayed his hand.

On Nov. 13, General Constantino Chiwenga, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander and a staunch ally of Mnangagwa’s, publicly warned Mugabe —amid rumors that there was a warrant out for his arrest—that the military would step in if the purges of the Lacoste faction did not stop. The next day, the military swung into action, sealing Mugabe’s fate and dashing his wife’s political ambitions.

What Next?

Events are moving quickly on the ground, and a number of possible scenarios could play out in the coming days and months. Mugabe is a wily negotiator and strategist, and while the deck appears to finally be stacked against him, he still holds a few cards.

Because the military intervention stopped short of removing him from power, and the African Union and the Southern African Development Community will not countenance an outright coup, the military and ZANU-PF are seeking to remove Mugabe through legal means. But since most legal options require Mugabe to resign or willingly agree to reinstate Mnangagwa, Mugabe has some leverage. Without a negotiated settlement, however, Mugabe and his wife could eventually face prosecution.

At the time of writing, the situation remains extremely fluid. Regardless of how Mugabe eventually leaves office, an interim inclusive government is reportedly being discussed. Such an arrangement which would install Mnangagwa as president and possibly include prominent opposition figures such as leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, and former vice president Mujuru.

Despite Mnangagwa’s past human rights abuses, given his support from the military he will need to play a role in any interim government that succeeds Mugabe. An truly inclusive transitional authority with a mandate to implement broad institutional and electoral reforms and oversee free and fair elections would give Zimbabwe the best chance to move toward a genuine democracy. Mugabe has long blamed Western countries for Zimbabwe’s ills. Given this toxic relationship, U.S policymakers must tread carefully in Zimbabwe. But Mugabe’s impending departure offers an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. The U.S. government would be wise to work closely with regional actors in supporting a transitional authority and promise to reengage economically and lift existing sanctions if Zimbabwe implements reforms and holds free, fair, and nonviolent elections.

But Zimbabwe’s empowered military, and Mnangagwa’s authoritarian tendencies, may prove to be formidable obstacles to democratic reform. With a fresh taste of power, the military is unlikely to allow any transition that does not guarantee its interests, and will likely remain the final arbiter of power in Zimbabwe moving forward. Zimbabwe offers a cautionary tale to authoritarian leaders who depend on the military to stay in power: The monster you create may ultimately devour you.


Alexander Noyes is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexHNoyes.

Image: DandjkRoberts via Wikimedia Commons

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