“We wish to make it abundantly clear this is not a military takeover of government,” announced the uniformed officer who popped up on Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster in the early hours of Wednesday. President Robert Mugabe was in military custody and tanks were rolling through Harare’s streets. In a fluid, confusing and opaque situation, the fact that a coup was taking place was one of the few certainties. But only the head of the African Union dared venture near the four-letter word, suggesting “it seems like a coup”.
The military has indicated that its power seizure is, by design, short-lived – a “bloodless correction”, in one splendid euphemism. The man they are removing scorns democracy; his heir apparent – his 52-year-old wife – looked a great deal worse than him. Mr Mugabe’s 37 years in power appear to be over – even if he still clings to his title for a while, and even if he remains within his gilded cage, the presidential residence, rather than going into exile. But if all goes as expected, he will be replaced by another politician, his former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, rather than a general. For reasons good and bad, people hope to work with the new leadership. Calling this a coup would complicate engagement, and the African Union and Southern African Development Community would have to suspend Zimbabwe as a member. So internationally, calls for calm, restraint and dialogue dominated.
This crisis has been a long time coming. Mr Mugabe has destroyed his own status as an icon of liberation by reducing his country to such dire economic and political straits. The question of succession was so fraught that it perhaps extended his reign: no one wanted to precipitate the choice when they hoped they might manoeuvre their way to the top. But the issue could not be deferred forever: at 93, the world’s oldest head of state has been visibly ailing. Last week, he ejected Mr Mnangagwa from the vice-presidency, clearing the way for his wife, Grace, to take charge – and triggering these events.
“Gucci Grace” and her G40 faction are extraordinarily unpopular, for good reason: her unpredictability, vindictiveness and very visible extravagance. The prospect of her ascension was frightening; the sympathetic view is that the power grab was needed to protect the country from spinning into outright chaos, violence and despair.
Yet the prospect of President Mnangagwa is hardly a cause for celebration. His long years as Mr Mugabe’s chief enforcer tell one much of what we need to know about his record. The nickname he earned, “the Crocodile”, says the rest. Meanwhile, the generals have been anxious that rank-and-file soldiers are going unpaid and hungry – like so many state employees. But this was not an act of patriotic idealism. Concerns about their own skins and their own immense economic interests surely loomed large in their minds.
Zanu-PF’s factions have long been engaged in an internal struggle for power, and the accompanying access to resources. Now the unity that has sustained it through challenges has visibly fractured, with all the attendant dangers and possibilities that brings.
That calm prevailed on the streets of Harare on Wednesday evening is good news. If elections due in the first half of next year go ahead as scheduled that too will be important, but the opposition is divided and in any case there is a widespread assumption that polls will be rigged again. Mr Mnangagwa is said to be looking at a coalition deal, which might offer some stability and create an aura of legitimacy.
On a very optimistic view, this might mean accepting a somewhat greater degree of tolerance and compromise. More likely is that he will try to boost support through better management, seeking to stabilise the economy and woo foreign money – perhaps while relying on increased coercion to maintain his position if necessary. Call Wednesday’s events what you will. Ordinary Zimbabweans appear as far as ever from taking power.