Zimbabwe is the fourth country in Southern Africa to have a post-independence coup. (The others are Lesotho twice, Seychelles and Madagascar*). The army generals officially announced around 4am (CAT) on November 15, 2017 that its Commander in Chief, President Robert Mugabe and his family were safe and their security was secure. Safe and secure for those of us who study African politics is also code for secured. This effectively means that the first family is now under some type of arrest. In the same address, the military generals also announced and those closest to the First Lady Grace Mugabe who appeared to be pulling the shots in the ruling party have been arrested for attempting to re-colonize the country and undermining the revolution. This type of coup is called a “guardian coup.” The argument goes that “… whatever motivations may have driven a coup or whatever the faults of the government it deposed, changes in the international system after the Cold War make coup-backed governments much more likely to lead a transition to democracy.”
The army at least for now claims that they have no intentions of staying in power longer than is needed to restore order. At the moment, it remains unclear what they mean by restoring order.
That Zimbabwe is at a crossroads, goes without saying. There is no constitutional mandate for a coup – even a guardian one as we have seen in Zimbabwe. Since 2000 Zimbabwe has been in deep political and economic crisis. At the height of inflation and political violence between 2007 and 2008 most Zimbabweans hoped that the opposition led by Morgan Tsvangirayi would win the election and Zimbabwe would see a peace transition of power like her neighbors. In Malawi and Zambia long ruling parties and leaders left office after opening up political space and allowing for opposition participation. In Zimbabwe, it appeared as though Robert Mugabe had managed the inevitable and reinvented ZANU-PF and himself into a democratic party that could claim legitimacy.
So what happened? If this coup was about the economy and social issues then it would have likely happened in 2008 and or at the very least in 2016 when the President announced that US$15 billion has gone missing. Over the last year the economic situation severely deteriorated. Whereas between 2005 and 2008 there was some semblance of functioning industry the backbone for working class Zimbabweans by 2016 most industries had shut down. In 2016, I spent months driving around the country taking stock of the status of various industry and it was depressing. The once bustling Willoville neighborhood in Harare was a skeleton of its former self. Zimbabweans have always supported the local industry by purchasing locally made products – everything was made in Zimbabwe, however, today nothing is made in Zimbabwe. People are resorting to buying used underwear on the streets smuggled in from Mozambique.
As the country was burning and the opposition depleted from years of abuse retreated from the political front lines, ZANU PF’s internal wars intensified. The First Lady Grace Mugabe rose from the shadows of just another political spouse to a powerful voice in the party. Her public denunciations of officials in the ruling ZANU-PF party have in recent years led to the demotion of several of those with whom she disagrees. In 2014, after a series of speeches in which she called for the ouster of then Vice President Joice Mujuru, the former VP was forced to quit both her cabinet position and the party. The event that sparked the coup was her public campaigning for Mnangagwa’s ouster which was confirmed on November 5, 2017.
In an unprecedented move since independence, on November 13th 2017, Zimbabwe Defense Forces Commander General Constintino Chiwenga issued a statement in which he warned of a possible military takeover should the ruling party fail to address its internal squabbles. In an act of clear political naiveté and troubling failure to understand the nature of liberation politics the President did not directly respond to this ask. Instead, the President and First Lady sent the youth leader Kudzai Chipanga to issue a statement in which he denigrated the military officials and accused them of stealing the missing USD$15 Billion. The First Lady and President instructed the state controlled media not to publish the communication by the general. This was a weak move. Those of us studying the impact of social media in African countries understand that regimes can no longer keep the news contained. The General’s statement had already been broadcast live on social media and the attempt by the government to muzzle the news was indicative of a team of power players with no factual understanding of the reality on the ground. Following the statement by the Youth Leader Chipanga events became more ominous with strange sightings of the military at the state run broadcasting, sounds of gunshots and eerily silence from the usually vocal first lady.
Ideally, a coup is never the best solution. The good news is that the former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa has not been reinstalled. This suggests to some extent that the military is reaching out to other stake holders. I would predict that Joice Mujuru and Morgan Tsvangirai have been called in to the discussions. An ideal outcome is one in which people from different political factions come together to form a unity transitional government. For my other work on social media I have joined over 50 WhatsApp and Facebook groups. There is evidence from those interactions that indeed the revolution will be tweeted. I am also glad to note that Zimbabweans are being cautious and many have remained at home and are monitoring the situation. As global events in the South continue to unfold there is a real challenge for social media gurus like Facebook and Twitter to monitor the spread of fake news in those countries because alternative facts can cause a lot of damage.
- Thanks to our alert readers (Audrey Brown on Facebook as well as Josh Budlender, Rich Brauer, Godfrey Sithole and ShezzLovely on Twitter for pointing out this error. Sarah Rich Dorman pointed out that this is the first post-liberation coup in Southern Africa–Editor.)