Goodbye strongman, hello military intervention: An explainer for what just happened in Zimbabwe

Mugabe got taken down after nearly four decades as Zimbabwe's leader-- here's what to expect next, including who might succeed him.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe  addresses supporters at the party headquarters in Harare, while his wife Grace looks on.  Mugabe, the world's oldest head of state, recently warned officials of his ZANU-PF party to stop insulting each other. A lot of the bitter quarrels, which come ahead of Mugabe's 92nd birthday on Feb. 21, happen on Twitter and other social media platforms, provided Zimbabweans with a stream of nasty, colorful and sometimes entertaining quips. CREDIT: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Photo.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addresses supporters at the party headquarters in Harare, while his wife Grace looks on. Mugabe, the world's oldest head of state, recently warned officials of his ZANU-PF party to stop insulting each other. A lot of the bitter quarrels, which come ahead of Mugabe's 92nd birthday on Feb. 21, happen on Twitter and other social media platforms, provided Zimbabweans with a stream of nasty, colorful and sometimes entertaining quips. CREDIT: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Photo.

Zimbabwe’s military on Wednesday seized power of the government and the capital, claiming it was holding President Robert Mugabe and his family “safe” while they zeroed in on what they called “criminals” in Mugabe’s inner circle.

Reuters reports that soldiers announced the takeover using the state broadcast airwaves. “We are only targeting criminals around him (Mugabe) who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice,” said Major General SB Moyo, Chief of Staff Logistics. “As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.” He also denied that the events of the past 24 hours constitute a “military takeover, even as armored military vehicles surround government buildings in the capital of Harare, and there are “checkpoints” and vehicle searches around the city.

“Yes, it’s a military coup — it smells and looks like one. There’s tanks in the streets and taking over the broadcaster — so it has all the hallmarks [of a coup] including saying ‘It’s not a coup’,” said Scott Taylor, Director, African Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Mugabe and his wife, Grace — referred to as “Gucci Grace” for her taste in luxury brands — are essentially under house arrest, according to a phone conversation Mugabe had with South African President Jacob Zuma. Taylor, though, told ThinkProgress that there are rumors that Grace Mugabe is in Namibia, but there’s been no confirmation of where she might be.

Armed soldiers stand by an armored vehicle on the road leading to President Robert Mugabe's office in Harare, Zimbabwe Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. CREDIT: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Photo.
Armed soldiers stand by an armored vehicle on the road leading to President Robert Mugabe’s office in Harare, Zimbabwe Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. (CREDIT: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Photo)

Mugabe, who has been the Zimbabwe’s only ruler since the country’s independence 37 years ago, has run his office with an iron fist. While a post-colonial hero to some, other blame him for the country’s economic struggles, which include drastic currency hyperinflation and deflation.

He was also the target of frequent human rights campaigns who drew attention to his record of resorting to violence to quash opponents and underdogs alike.

Under Mugabe, the rule of law, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and press freedoms have withered. Mugabe once said that homosexuality “degrades human dignity. It’s unnatural, and there is no question ever of allowing these people to behave worse than dogs and pigs.” Speaking at an African Union Women’s Empowerment Summit in 2015, Mugabe also said women will never be on “on par” with men because their role is to have babies and stay at home.

And according to the Globe and Mail, anger is starting to hit a boiling point in the country, where increasingly, traditional and social media have been somewhat stifled:

Almost 200 people have faced criminal charges for “insulting” Mr. Mugabe in recent years, according to a tally by human-rights lawyers. At the same time, attacks on Zimbabwean journalists have increased, with 51 journalists arrested or assaulted by police since the beginning of last year, according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa.

But what is behind the military coup/not-coup is the fact that Mugabe, 93, was seen planning to have Grace, 52, succeed him in office after he fired his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, last week. Mnangagwa had close ties with the military, which supported him as Mugabe’s successor over Grace Mugabe. “Disloyalty” was the reason given for Mnangagwa’s firing — he was accused of forming parallel tracks inside the ZANU-PF ruling party as well as scheming to take over state institutions.

As soon as Mnangagwa was fired, Taylor said he knew Mugabe had left himself vulnerable to a coup. And while he said that having the military take control in such an aggressive fashion is “unprecedented,” there has been what Taylor calls a “militarization of politics” in Zimbabwe since the early aughts, with the increased presence of former commanders and senior officers in policy roles, who have been empowered through access to diamond mines in the eastern part of the country.

Allowing the military to have a greater role was intended as a “coup-proofing” measure,” said Taylor. “I think Mugabe was completely protected, until he got rid of the guy who had his tentacles in the military-security complex in Zimbabwe, and that was a bridge too far.”

But Grace Mugabe was expected to fill Mnangagwa’s post, with the announcement to come in next month’s special party conference. She even said last week that she would happily take her husband’s job. “I say to Mr Mugabe you should … leave me to take over your post,” she said at a stadium full of church followers in Harare. “Have no fear. If you want to give me the job give it to me freely.”

The public’s response to the military takedown of the Mugabes — slapping down what is seen as Grace Mugabe’s power grab — is favorable in some corners, said Taylor, adding that the president’s wife is not popular with much of the old guard. Plus, Taylor said that there’s a worry that Mugabe, known as an “incredibly savvy” leader, has been “non-compos mentis” in deciding to fire Mnangagwa in such a public, humiliating fashion.

“This was a gross miscalculation… a tremendous misstep,” said Taylor.

Whatever the military’s endgame — to install Mnangagwa as Zimbabwe’s next president or to perhaps remain in power until the 2018 elections in an attempt to stabilize Zimbabwe, the coming days and weeks might be potential game-changers for the country watching the events of the past week unfold with a degree of shock.

“Anything like an active [military] intervention in politics like this is unprecedented in the modern history of the country and so in that respect, it’s worrisome,” said Taylor. “I think that [the military] will find a way to install him into power, whether that’s in some kind of coalition, whether it’s temporary…until the elections next year…I would bet money that Emmerson Mnangagwa will emerge in the leadership structure.”

It’s hard to guess the extent to which the military will want to stay in power, said Taylor.

“One never knows what the taste of power does to a group of military officers, however, because it’s so unprecedented in Zimbabwe, and because Mnangagwa seems to have legitimacy with all these military, security entities, I think we’ll have a mostly civilian restoration, whatever it looks like,” he said.