The Stroke of the Zimbabwean State

BBC, Zimbabwean Politics

The Zimbabwean State

When, exactly, does a coup transpire? Consider the current imagery in Zimbabwe’s capital city: army tanks parked in central Harare, blocking access to government offices; Zimbabwean citizens walking along footpaths, crossing roads, as if nothing noteworthy is going on around; an army general appearing in front of a camera on the ZBC (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation)—which incidentally happens to be Mugabe’s mouthpiece—and addressing the nation as well as the world. However, the riddle is this: General S. B. Moyo announced that “it [was] not a military takeover”.

The classic coup d’état. Following heated palace politics, army rode its men and machines into the centre of the governmental establishment—a move both strategically and symbolically significant—and calls it a corrective measure to a decadent and degrading political performance. Military involvement in politics is diverse and it may not simply be typified by the binary ‘coup or no coup’ categories. Political systems experience martial meddling in various ways. Zimbabwean military’s seizing of ZBC then, irrespective of what its officer corps call it, is a military coup d’état.

Palace Politics

The power struggle between two rival factions in the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party has culminated in an intervention by the Zimbabwean army on 15th November. The faction of ZANU-PF known as ‘G40’ has rallied behind First Lady, Grace Mugabe, to succeed the 93-year old Robert Mugabe as president of Zimbabwe. On the other hand, Emmerson Mnangagwa, (until 6th November, the vice-president of Zimbabwe) had his own faction rallying for his accession to the throne. Mnangagwa, an army veteran himself, earned the nickname ‘The Crocodile’ owing to his fierce fight for Zimbabwean independence from the British in 1980.

The embittered battle for succession between the G40 and Mnangagwa faction culminated when President Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa as the vice-president of Zimbabwe, a move intended to clear the way for Mrs.Mugabe to eventually become the head of state. But what was he expecting? Mnangagwa, while a close ally and friend of Mugabe’s since 1980, enjoyed almost unanimous military support, with army veterans voicing their favour for a Mnangagwa succession, as opposed to Grace Mugabe’s.

A seasoned and repeated subject of widespread controversy, Grace Mugabe has come to be much despised for her erratic behaviour and lavish lifestyle in an economically unstable and politically tortuous Zimbabwe. President Mugabe himself, while raved by his country as a hero of liberation, has subsequently been reviled by Zimbabwean people and the international community as a despot.

Consolidation of Power by the Army

The ruling party falling out of favour with the citizenry, combined with the ouster of a vice-president with heavy army backing: a recipe for the perfect military coup. The Chief of Defense Constantino Chiwenga said just 24 hours ago that the military would not hesitate to step in to settle the dispute in the ruling party.

According to Reuters, several blasts reportedly rocked Harare, and army tanks and personnel were quickly deployed. Upon this, the army denied a military takeover and cited that its action was merely a countermeasure to establish calm in an otherwise turbulent political environment. The President and the First Lady were confined to their homes. South African president Jacob Zuma has said after a short call with Mr. Mugabe that he and his wife were under ‘house arrest’ but “safe and sound”. Effectively, the military has crippled literally every aspect of civilian control: it has confined the head of state, rendering him in a state of paralysis; it has blocked access to all government buildings; parked itself at the heart of Harare.

Additionally, it has also detained the Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo. Mr. Chombo is the political head of the country’s paramilitary, Zimbabwean Republican Police (ZRP). In any country, a strong paramilitary is constituted to act as a countermeasure to the military’s power. Lightly armed and deployed closer to the political centers of the country, the paramilitary assumes the security and service-related roles, thereby keeping the military at arm’s length form the country’s politics and ensuring its depoliticization.

By occupying the city’s center, following orders to the paramilitary not to ‘cross the line’, the military has essentially crippled the ZRP. While Mr. Chombo is a central figure in the G40 faction, the Commissioner of the ZRP, Augustine Chihuri has confessed his loyalty to Mr. Mugabe. Moreover, the ZRP has repeatedly come under flak from citizens and human rights organizations for gross human rights violations and indiscriminate corruption.

Given all this, it can safely be said that the state is essentially under ‘the gun’.

The Language of Coup-makers

No head of the army will ever confess to a coup as a political act. Almost always, the post-takeover language of the army is infused with nationalism, where they portray themselves as the guardians of national interest. After the ouster of Iskander Mirza in 1958, Field Marshall Ayub Khan called his assumption of power a ‘preventive autocracy’ which was eventually supposed to aid the establishment of a democracy. Both the Turkish coup of 1960 led by General Cemal Gürsel and the 1977 coup d’état by General Zia-ul-Haq against the Bhutto government were termed as ‘corrective measures’ to set right increasingly authoritarian, incompetent and corrupt governments. Examples of shrouding such political action in language of righteousness and forthrightness are abound.

In a similar way, while Genral Sibusiso Moyo might not call the army’s action a “military takeover”, it is one. The political unraveling in Zimbabwe is a clear decapitation of civilian power, irrespective of how long it will last.

With rumors flying around that Mnangagwa will now assume power as president following Mugabe’s immediate stepdown, it remains to be seen as to where Zimbabwe will land on the democracy – garrison state spectrum.

Also published on Medium.