The rumblings within Zimbabwe’s political class are being echoed by the rumbling of tank treads, as witnesses report armoured vehicles moving towards the capital, Harare. Unverified sources have reported encounters with military vehicles both within and outside the capital, fuelling speculation that a potential coup may be underway. Given the growing tensions between the military and Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace, this line of reasoning is not beyond the realm of possibility; especially given the ongoing purge within the ruling party, ZANU-PF.
Speaking on ZANU-PF's infighting, army chief Constantino Chiwenga recently warned the military might intervene in Zimbabwean politics if Mugabe does not reign in his fighting subordinates. This marks the first time the military have openly criticized ZANU-PF factionalism, and indicates a growing rift between senior military leaders and the nonagenarian Mugabe.
Surrounded by dozens of senior military officials, Chiwenga took aim at the party, demanding that “the current purging which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background must stop forthwith.” Chiwenga's next message was more ominous: “We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in.”
Since these comments were made, ZANU-PF officials have accused Chiwenga of “treasonous conduct”, claiming the head of the military is seeking to disrupt national peace. This has in turn created a self-fulfilling prophecy of the kind Chiwenga warned of in the first place. To combat rumours, the government is seeking to reassure the populace that it remains in control and that no coup is underway. The party’s response has been deliciously passive-aggressive, as demonstrated by the below tweet - one that sounds like it could have been penned by Grace herself.
Thanks for your concerns, there is NO coup happening in Zimbabwe. Please continue with your lives and face up to your own problems.— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) 14 November 2017
Mugabe’s liberation-era credentials have to some degree legitimated his rule, qualifications which Grace lacks. The removal of any potential successors with links to Zimbabwe’s independence struggle removes any potential elder statesman acting as a focal point for Grace’s detractors to rally behind.
As the situation on the ground continues to unfurl, the final outcome of this crisis remains uncertain. That being said, this was a storm that many have seen coming.
A fall from grace (Mugabe)
The trigger for the military’s discontent has been the ousting of long-serving former military and justice minister, and hitherto vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa on November 6th. A key member of the government for decades, Mnangagwa’s fall from grace has been swift, another victim of Grace Mugabe's ascendency. Mnangagwa and Grace are widely seen as the leaders of two warring factions within the ZANU-PF; with Grace fronting the G-40 faction and Mnangagwa heading the so-called ‘Lacoste’ faction.
After claiming he was poisoned at a ZANU-PF youth rally in Gwanda, Mnangagwa and his allies were quickly booted out of power in a surprise cabinet shuffle in late September. Long considered a prime candidate to succeed the ageing Mugabe, the former vice president was quickly reduced to attempting to (unsuccessfully) flee across the border into Mozambique. After a late night scuffle at the border, Mnangagwa eventually managed to escape to South Africa, citing fears for his life.
Newly sequestered in exile, Mnangagwa has lashed out at the government he until recently loyally served. Mnangagwa has ranted that ZANU-PF “is not personal property of you and your wife to do as you please [...] This is now a party controlled by egotistical, self-serving minnows who derive their power not from the people and party but from only two individuals in the form of the First Family. [sic]”
Mnangagwa now becomes the second vice president to have run afoul of Grace Mugabe. After being appointed head of the Women’s League in 2014 - thus acquiring a seat in the ZANU-PF politburo - Grace has quickly consolidated power. The same year she also accused then vice president Joice Mujuru of conspiring to overthrow Mugabe: Mujuru was promptly ousted.
2014 also saw Grace awarded a doctorate from the University of Zimbabwe, only two months after enrolling and without defending a thesis. The fact that her husband is also the university’s chancellor only adds to the farce of it all. Through 2016 Grace’s power only grew, and following the ousting of Mnangagwa various ZANU-PF officials have clamoured for Grace to fill the now vacant vice presidency.
Gucci beats Lacoste
Four decades younger than Mugabe, Grace famously declared that Zimbabweans would vote for Mugabe even if he stood for re-election as corpse. As it becomes increasingly likely that Grace will be Mugabe’s designated successor the possibility of the Mugabe dynasty ruling Zimbabwe for decades to come looms on the horizon. Grace Mugabe joins other spouses of autocrats in eliciting just as much, if not more, hatred as their authoritarian husbands. Combining levels of intra-party disdain akin to Jiang Qing (aka Madame Mao) and public hatred a la Elena Ceausescu, Grace has long caused controversy.
Nicknamed ‘Gucci Grace’ by her detractors, Grace’s lavish lifestyle has been a particular sore spot in debt-ridden Zimbabwe. In 2010 she was implicated in money laundering and diamond smuggling in a Wikileaks release, and is currently suing a jeweller for failing to deliver a $1.35 million diamond ring she had commissioned for her wedding anniversary.
Grace’s aggressive outbursts and lavish lifestyle have done little to endear her to ordinary Zimbabweans. Already subject to EU and UN personal sanctions for her role in the Mugabe regime, Grace ordered her bodyguards to attack a press photographer in 2009 in Hong Kong, later joining in on the beating: she subsequently avoided prosecution by invoking diplomatic immunity. More recently, she was involved in a similar altercation in South Africa in August, in which she assaulted her sons and several South African models. As in 2009, she did not appear for her court date.
Election 2018: Zimbabwe's event horizon
The upcoming election in 2018 will see Mugabe run for office yet again, with the increasingly probability of his imminent demise fixing all eyes on the mounting succession crisis. Promises of 'looking to the future' ring hollow from an autocrat a few years shy of 100; so much so that even national television hosts could not contain themselves, with SABC TV’s Mpho Tsedu losing his composure while interviewing ‘independent’ Zimbabwean voters pledging their support for Mugabe.
The absurdity of the entire affair has made Zimbabwe’s government even touchier than usual, as the Mugabe regime seeks to stifle any sources of dissent ahead of the 2018 election. To this end, the government has created a ministry to oversee social media. U.S journalist Martha O’Donovan has become the first to be arrested since the new state organ was created. O’Donovan has been charged with subversion and attempting to overthrow the government. Her crime? She referred to Mugabe as a “goblin” in a tweet. Four individuals were also recently arrested for booing Grace Mugabe at a ZANU-PF event.
Mnangagwa’s flight to South Africa (where he joins opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai) and the removal of his allies from power has further solidified Grace Mugabe’s de facto position as Zimbabwe’s heir apparent. The backlash against Chiwenga’s threat of military intervention also sidelines the military's senior leadership from the succession question. Such a blatant alienation of Zimbabwe’s high command is risky and it remains to be seen whether the generals rally around the embattled Chiwenga or bend the knee to Grace to avoid being purged.
Is Zimbabwe saved by its own ineptitude?
In a certain sense, Zimbabwe’s own dysfunction may well be the greatest hindrance to any potential coup. The military has not been spared the effects of Zimbabwe’s dire financial straits, and the armed forces are seriously underfunded. The military requested $965 million in funding but was only allocated $76 million in the 2018 budget. This paltry amount is further depleted after $72 million worth of outstanding food, water and power bills are factored in.
Angry at being expected to feed soldiers to the tune of 68 cents per day, Major General Douglas Nyikayaramba warns that “We are going to have elections in 2018 and this budget did not take into account that the country is going to require assistance from soldiers” Concerned about the severe lack of adequate training, Nyikayaramba worries that if “anything happens here in Harare where there is potential for confusion, I tell you there will be massacres, because a bomb will just fall on people.”
Now, this funding shortfall could be a Machiavellian move by the government to neuter the army ahead of the election, using the country’s economic woes as a convenient smokescreen. This is likely giving the regime too much credit. Nevertheless, unpaid bills, tattered uniforms, measly rations, power blackouts and severe fuel shortages all severely hamstring any effort by the military to foment a coup - or rush to the regime’s rescue for that matter.
Nevertheless, by November 15th, Zimbabwe's military had managed to take control of state television and place Robert Mugabe under house arrest. In a phone call Mugabe mentioned he was fine, although the location of Grace remains unknown, with one MP saying she has fled to Namibia. Whether the military's gambit pays off remains to be seen, but these are certainly interesting times for Zimbabwe.
Article updated Nov. 15th
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.