The Interregnum in Zimbabwe

I write this quick note as an outsider (and well aware of my physical distance from events). I am writing this on the eve of the promised impeachment Tuesday of President Robert Mugabe by his own party’s MP’s. Despite the fact that I went to share the optimism of many Zimbabweans who marched on Saturday, longing to have some catharsis for the end of Mugabe’s 37 years of mismanagement and repression, what is obvious is that the ruling ZANU-PF party and the military are managing this process. Whatever they or we want to call it: a coup or merely “targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes.

It is now a week since the tanks rolled into Harare.

Here’s the rub: For the military and ZANU-PF this is not the end of one-party rule or of the military’s control over life in Zimbabwe. No, for them this is an internal ZANU-PF matter.  They’ve made that clear so many times since last week. As the opposition politician, Tendai Bibi, summed it up to The New York Times: “This coup was the result of a disagreement between people eating at the same table, whereas most coups in Africa are done by people eating under the table and receiving crumbs.”

When this is over, the military and ZANU-PF want Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Vice President fired by Mugabe, to become President. This is not about fresh elections. This is about strengthening the party ahead of elections and dealing with their opponents in the party, chiefly Grace Mugabe and her G40 group.

Mnangagwa, who is a carbon copy of Mugabe, is touted as the “reform” candidate and everyone seem to buy into it (including the bankers and Western governments. They want “stability” first, remember). That’s not how Zimbabweans remember or experience Mnangagwa, of course. He was the government minister in charge of the Fifth Bridge, the army unit, which indiscriminately killed up to 20,000 in 1983 in Matabaleland province, served under Mugabe all this time and was later named in a 2002 UN report about illegal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo and running violent gold syndicates. As for his style of rule, no less an authority than “The Socialist Worker,” quoting a local activist,” is right: “Mnangagwa is the Zanu PF hardman, the face of the Deep State — the junta that has ruled Zimbabwe for the last decade …”

This is also how Mugabe treated the “coup” — as an internal party matter — in his speech on Sunday night when he made what amounted to a “State of the Nation” address, mixing policy announcements (about unleashing entrepreneurialism) with pleas for party unity. It was like the last few days had not happened at all: That his own party had deserted him, called for his resignation, and expelled his wife (Mugabe’s preferred successor) and her allies.

So, now we have this strange sight: On the one hand, a military coup with the generals running things and, on the one hand, a president under house arrest refusing to go, who calls Cabinet meetings and preparing to preside over the party’s congress next month. It’s like he called their bluff and they’re not sure what to do. There is also now unconfirmed reports that Mugabe and Mnangagwa may have met and “buried the hachet.” (It’s from the ruling party press so take that with a grain of salt, but it is telling.) 

Then there are the masses of Zimbabweans. People are not sure whether they should celebrate the ouster of Mugabe or whether they’re legitimizing the very people who effected Mugabe’s rule until now. But it is not like Zimbabweans are naive: They must wonder what terrible forms of violence the army can unleash on them if they do go into the streets without permission. Remember, this is the army that use to pummel people into voting for ZANU-PF.

But the army and ZANU-PF (and to some extent Mugabe), must also be worried how the people react. Luckily for them there is no organized opposition to channel and organize the people’s pent up anger and emotion towards a truly revolutionary endpoint, as a Zimbabwean friend lamented last night.

What if people go into the streets without the military’s consent? Remember, Saturday’s march was approved by the military. Which may explain why, in a press conference last night, the generals made it clear they wanted people to remain calm go on with their daily life and advised students not to protest — in caps: “Students at the country’s various institutions are encouraged to to be calm and to proceed with their educational programmes as scheduled. THEY NEED TO REMEMBER THAT ONE DAY OF EDUCATION LOST IS DIFFICULT TO RECOVER.” As a friend reminded me, the military’s fear is that if they don’t control and manage the process, it might be spiral out of their control. So everything must be managed in language couched for “love of the nation” but that barely conceals the authoritarian impulses of the people managing this process.

This is where we are: The objective conditions — with the qualification that things are fluid and can go either way — don’t look like a sea change, but more like mostly-the-same-ZANU-PF led by Mnangagwa and a strong military, governing or believing its their right to continue to govern after the old man is gone. (ZANU-PF models itself after the Chinese Communist Party and basically believes that “Political power grows out of a barrel of a gun”) And the military has always made it clear they won’t salute anyone who has not fought in the liberation war which was in the 1970s. So the chances of an opposition candidate governing Zimbabwe is very remote. And I think for better or worse — and I don’t blame them and respect people’s wishes of course — a lot of Zimbabweans are either willfully blind to this state of affairs or they don’t care about the objective conditions, they just want to — after 37 years of personalized, violent rule by Mugabe — will their wishes into being. At least they want to see him gone. The rest can wait for another time.

I hope I am wrong.

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs is the Founder and Editor of Africa is a Country. He is on faculty of The New School in New York.

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