Military takeover in Zimbabwe: "Politics in this country will not be the same"


The Zimbabwean military has apparently ended President Mugabes longlasting regime. Although unparalleled, the coup appears to pre-empt imminent threats to military interests, says political analyst and researcher McDonald Lewanika.

McDonald Lewanika
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McDonald Lewanika

What is happening in Zimbabwe at the moment?

At the moment Zimbabwe’s political market has a lot of moving parts, making the situation fairly unpredictable. This is especially the case given that the major players, ZANU-PF and the military, have in the past defied logic through taking up positions and carrying out actions that would seem illogical.

While the ouster of Emerson Mnangagwa from the ZANU-PF Vice Presidency was not unprecedented, as it had happened just two years ago with Joice Mujuru, the overt intervention by way of a military takeover is fairly unparalleled. By most accounts, although the army denies it, a coup has been staged, and what is open to debate is what type of coup this is.

On the strength of the military’s pronouncements that the coup intends to deal with corrupt elements around Mugabe, the various injunctions they issued to different sectors of the community, as well as the limited bloodletting so far, the propaganda suggests that this will be a ‘Guardian Coup’ – where the military steps in to deal with poor or bad governance. But on the strength of the evidence, stemming from political developments in recent weeks and the Commander of the Defense Forces (CDF), General Chiwenga’s statement on Monday, it appears this is a ‘Veto Coup’. Veto Coups are military interventions or take overs calculated to pre-empt imminent threats to the interests of the military establishment.

McDonald Lewanika

McDonald Lewanika is a Politics and Development professional and researcher with over 15 years experience working in Zimbabwe, the Southern Africa region and some parts of Europe. During this career, McDonald has led and managed civil society coalitions and organizations in Zimbabwe, designed and conducted high-level research-based advocacy, planned and coordinated national and global campaigns, and developed, fundraised for and managed multi-year multi-donor programs. McDonald holds degrees in International Development and Political Science from University of Manchester and the London School of Economics (LSE), and is currently pursuing doctoral studies at LSE, researching competitive authoritarian regimes and electoral campaigns.

This can be evidenced by the clear factional stance that the CDF took, which makes it apparent that the intervention is not altruistic but a clever yet dangerous gambit by a CDF who was cornered and could see that the axe was going to fall on his head next. The CDF’s statement is instructive in respect of highlighting the military’s break with Mugabe, and the ruling party. While the initial statement called for an end to purges, the military has taken over and instituted purges of its own aimed at the G40 faction, whose members we understand are either arrested or on the run. The G40 Faction is one of the two main rival factions to emerge in ZANU-PF after the ouster of Former Vice President Mujuru in December 2014. The other, "Lacoste” is allegedly led by Former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, with support of war veterans and the military, while "G40" is allegedly led by First Lady Grace Mugabe, but publicly fronted by Professor Jonathan Moyo and is believed to be Robert Mugabe’s faction.

Was the vice president removed to make way for Grace Mugabe?

Vice President Mnangagwa was removed first and foremost because he threatened Robert Mugabe’s power and could not be relied on to protect and perpetuate “Mugabeism” in the post-Robert Mugabe era, rather than being targeted to place someone else. His being touted as Mugabe’s successor created multiple centres of power instead of the one centre of power which Mugabe likes, and to which ZANU-PF had pledged allegiance.

Grace Mugabe could have been and may well be the beneficiary, but Mnangagwa started being persecuted before Grace Mugabe began her political rise. What was becoming clear was the intention to replace Mnangagwa with a woman, ostensibly on the strength of a resolution from the ZANU-PF Women’s’ league to revert to the order established in 2004 to have one male and one female Vice President.

Over the last week, ZANU-PF structures had stated Grace Mugabe as their preferred candidate to fill Mnangagwa’s post as the female Vice President. While several ZANU-PF provinces endorsed Grace Mugabe for the vice presidency, it is possible that some did so to show their support of the first family amidst the purges, possibly as survival strategy, and interpretation of what they thought the centre wanted.

It is now clear that some traditional veto powers in ZANU-PF, like the veterans of the liberation struggle and the military, stand in her way. Recent developments around the developing coup point to poignant resistance to her candidature, and although these bodies are not formally part of ZANU-PF structures they have always had a say in the party. Their pointed and public disapproval to Grace Mugabe is likely to stop the party from going for broke regarding her real or perceived (vice) Presidential ambitions.

How did ZANU-PF go from revolutionary party to a family affair?

It is possible for one to see a transition in ZANU-PF from a revolutionary party to now being a family affair, but such a perception is in part due to the romanticisation of the past and ZANU-PF itself. Another way of understanding this is through appreciating that for a long time ZANU-PF may have been a revolutionary party in name, but Robert Mugabe’s personal project in real terms.

This can be seen through how power and national affairs have been personalised and centralised around Robert Mugabe since the 1980, how the imperial presidency was created, and the notion of one center of power perpetuated in ZANU-PF. These developments indicate that Robert Mugabe’s priorities have had him at the top, with the family and party (which were often conflated) fighting for second place and Zimbabwe last in that top 4 priority list.

What makes the family now rise to the top is the very realisation that Mugabe will not be around forever, and that his young family needs to be secured, something that he could not rely on his previous and ousted vice president Joice Mujuru to do. Emerson Mnangagwa, too, failed in this task. He was appointed as an “assistant” to attend to his Master’s needs, but instead prepared himself for the Masters departure. It is in part this betrayal that has led Mugabe to rely more on the bloodline than the revolutionary connections, because in his eyes they have not proved to be up to the task. It is in this way that a transition from “revolutionary” to “familial” has taken place in ZANU-PF, centred around Mugabe’s personal needs.

What does the coup mean for the close relationship between the military and the ruling party?

The military has always had a hand in ZANU-PF affairs. But while this has often been covert and deniable, and also in service to ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe, this time it is overt and undeniable and ostensibly in defense of democracy in ZANU-PF. It is certainly also against actions that the party has taken, especially around purging contenders to Mugabe’s throne who coincidentally have mostly been veterans of the liberation struggle.

The CDF’s statement and the continuing coup marks a break with tradition, and creates chaos and uncertainty, which outside of higher ranks of the military, was not a strong feature of the political landscape. While the coup purportedly seeks to address the uncertainty, it is rather an attempt by the CDF to bring the might of the military to serve narrow factional (and personal) interests, rather than the very democracy the CDF was arguing for. This being the case, it is fairly clear that things have changed in Zimbabwe, and while it is not yet fully comprehensible, politics in the country will not be the same, with several scenarios set to play out depending on whether this turns out as a Guardian or Veto coup.

What is likely to happen next?

Whatever the nature of the coup, Mugabe is likely to be asked to step down and parliament allowed to institute a constitutional change of leadership. In the case of Zimbabwe, this means asking ZANU-PF to second someone else. This would mean that the Congress in December will be allowed to continue, and that ZANU-PF will be “allowed” to bring back and “choose” Mnangagwa so that his (Mnangagwa) take-over is legal. Should this happen, and Mnangagwa opts for a zero-sum transition, he may reward the generals through appointing the CDF as his deputy, extending the tenures of other generals. However, if he opts for an inclusive transition, he may lead a transitional government inclusive of the opposition.

But it is unlikely that the military will opt for a civillian transitional authority which they are not part of or control. Outside the above another possibility is that Mugabe may be retained briefly in a titular role, is forced to returns Mnangagwa who then effectively takes over, with Mugabe being allowed to step down in December at the ZANU-PF congress. Should Mugabe refuse to resign or be titular, the military will still need some civilian authorities to action their plans to minimize outrage and remove the scent of a military coup.

They are likely to turn either to Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko of Speaker of Parliament Jacob Mudenda to usher in a dispensation that protects their personal and institutional interests. In any event, the electoral calendar will change to accommodate either an early election to quickly legitimize the changes under way, or delayed elections under the guise of instituting electoral and democratic reforms, maintaining stability, as well as making the requisite constitutional arrangements to accommodate any new order if it deviates from constitutional norms.

What, do you think, are the long-term implications?

The path that Zimbabwe is now on is uncharted, a lot will depend on the extent to which the CDF and the military can hold steady and ensure compliance with their demands without resorting to violence and carnage. While popular consent is not required to institute a coup, it will increasingly become important in the aftermath. The Generals and their soldiers will have to enter the terrain of the politics of space and power, and will have to negotiate and be accommodative of wider interest. If they fail to manage this politics, they may fail to achieve what they sort out to do. Failure to negotiate the post coup terrain may y spell doom not just for the incumbent regime (if the army is rash and stages summary executions), but also the CDF and his generals on account of coups not being tolerated in the Commonwealth of Nations.

How will the recent events impact the ZANU-PF December conference?

Recent developments have changed the game, and a lot now depends on whether the two parties (ZANU-PF and ‘Military’) chose to escalate and go for a zero-sum game or deescalate, parlay and establish a new political settlement in ZANU-PF. The later is a possibility given that some of the demands from the CDF’s statement were related to the ZANU-PF’s December congress. Initially the ZANU-PF youth league and ZANU-PF had rubbished the CDF's statements, but that was before the military take-over was underway.

Given the military’s role in ZANU-PF, the army’s actions will call for a pause, and may lead to alterations to plans that had gotten into full swing to turn the December congress into a coronation of the Mugabe dynasty. Should the two parties parlay and not antagonize each other, compromises may be sought including halting plans to elevate Grace Mugabe if they existed, which is one of the underlying demands of the military.

During the weeks before the coup, attacks on civil society increased. Is this to be understood as muscle flexing before the 2018 elections, or does this signal a more long term trend?

The increased attacks on civil society carry the markers of vintage ZANU-PF, and are representative of a longer-term trend and agenda to muzzle, intimidate and put out of commission critical civil society actors. This trend always picks up around or towards elections. What is really disturbing is that the attacks are taking place at a time when ZANU-PF is preoccupied with internal fights and is presiding over a split state.

This should have rendered the states coercive abilities limited, but it hasn’t blunted them at all. So the attacks are significant in demonstrating that the modus operandi in the state and ZANU-PF is ingrained and that some elements of the state will demonstrate agency developed from years of practice and repress organisations that “need” to be repressed regardless of the state of politics in the party or the disposition of the centre.

What has happened to the popular uprisings we saw last year? Will we see more of these movements?

Quite a number of the popular uprising that emerged in 2016 were contingent and based on prevailing circumstances especially objective economic conditions which impacted peoples’ abilities to earn, fend for themselves and take care of their responsibilities. A lot of the uprising was thus centred around a policy decision to ban the imports of basic goods, which affected many traders in the informal sector, the non-payment of civil service salaries in a country where the state is the biggest employer, as well as to a lesser extent issues related to political freedoms. Now all these conditions still exist, the economy is bad, people are suffering, and some abhor ZANU-PF’s misrule.

But circumstances alone to do not create uprisings, they just present an enabling environment to mobilise people based on their grievances around the circumstances. Even then there are actions people are prepared to carry out, and others that they will continue to be hesitant about. The movements that drove the uprisings in 2016 have dissipated through state action and repression, but also self inflicted harm through perceptions of personalisation, lack of accountability, lack of organisation on the ground, and the turn to seeking political office by some of the movements leading lights. These factors combined with the possibility of elections as a possible solution will mean that the focus and space for organising will shift to political parties and elections, limiting, but without totally precluding, the possibilities of mass uprising as we head towards 2018.

It has to be remembered that people stage uprisings through meticulous planning, recruitment, organising, and consistent action. There is limited evidence on the ground of these things taking place rendering the 2016 uprisings into waves that have since dissipated. Uprisings are contingent, but they take place when chance meets organisation, preparation and sound leadership, not when opposition forces are disorganised and expend energies not on fighting the regime, but on fighting within and amongst themselves.

What should the international community do?

In light of recent developments, the international community must call for a speedy return to civilian and constitutional order. This should include an end to the “marshal law” instituted through reported military arrests of government officials over night. The international community should also facilitate a broad based dialogue that allows for the in situation of a civillian (non-military) led transitional process to allow Zimbabwe to transition peacefully to a more democratic dispensation.

It must also secure commitments from the generals around peace, justice and order which do not infringe the rights of or endanger the lives of ordinary citizens. A coup has taken place in Zimbabwe, all that is left is to make sure that it doesn’t become a permanent or long lasting feature in the polity, and to manage it towards a democratic resolution that sees the army back in the barracks.