The sight of a civilian populace wildly cheering soldiers clinging to a tank, is the standard fare of coups d’état. In Africa, which has had a troubling tradition of the military overthrowing civilian administrations, it’s a jubilation that historically has rarely lasted for long, with the new rulers soon proving to be at least as venal and oppressive as those they have replaced.
The Zimbabwe military’s slow motion, week-long, eviction of the man who has ruled that landlocked southern African state for its entire 37 years of existence as an independent nation, came to an abrupt and almost banal end on Tuesday night. After a week of determined resistance, President Robert Mugabe suddenly folded his hand and resigned with immediate effect, by means of a letter read out in the nation’s Parliament, just as impeachment proceedings were starting.
On a continent that often has been wracked by violent coups d’état, this had been a most unusual military intervention. For different reasons, everyone, on all sides, took pains to avoid any suggestion that this was a coup.
When the tanks last week swept into the capital city of Harare and soldiers took control of key installations, the nature of what had happened seemed simple: a forced change of power, accomplished in this case at the cost of the death of a single ministerial bodyguard, and with the 93-year-old Mugabe and his 52-year-old wife, Grace, placed under house arrest. That’s a textbook coup.
The military’s actions followed within days of Mugabe firing Deputy President Emmerson Mnangagwa, seemingly to clear the way for the widely despised Grace – known disparagingly as Gucci Grace for reports of her profligacy – to succeed him when he eventually relinquished control. Mnangagwa, who bears the nickname of Crocodile for his canny ruthlessness, and who was Mugabe’s lifelong friend and ally, fled to neighbouring South Africa.
“We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover,” were among the first words of Major General SB Moyo in the post-takeover statement read on television to a riveted nation. Rather, the military was targeting “criminals” around President Mugabe “who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country.”
The sensitivity to semantics on the part of the Zimbabwean generals stems from the 55-nation African Union, the continent’s over-arching intergovernmental body, taking an increasingly hard line against illegal changes of government. Alpha Conde, chair of the AU and president of Guinea, was initially forthright on what had happened: the action was “clearly soldiers trying to take power by force” and he warned that the AU would “never accept a coup d’état in Zimbabwe”.
The AU is, however, alert also to the diplomatic fallout that would result from thwarting the popular ousting of a man seen by many Zimbabweans as a despot who has long since lost the lustre he acquired while leading a liberation army in the long civil war to end white minority rule. Almost a quarter of Zimbabwe’s 16-million population has in the past decade fled the country as economic and political refugees, the majority of them to South Africa.
The reaction from the populace was at first muted. Perhaps they were scenting the political winds, trying to establish whether the same military that had so often in the past intervened to beat them to pulp when they dared vote for the opposition and which in the 1980s had killed 20,000 civilians in protracted massacre of its political opponents, was indeed proffering it the keys to its prison.
By the weekend, suspicion had turned to unbridled optimism. More than 100,000 Zimbabweans of all races assembled for peaceful demonstrations throughout the country to celebrate the ousting of Mugabe. Opposition groupings expressed guarded approval of the military’s actions, with the caveat that there should be a cross-party process of democratisation, free elections and an end to the flouting of human rights.
Faced with what now seemed might be a popular uprising, in the style of the Arab Spring that in 2010 transformed the political landscape of North Africa and the Middle East, the AU changed tack and expressed confidence that that a solution would be found within “constitutional legality”. It quickly passed the political hot potato to the 15-nation Southern African Development Community, the regional intergovernmental cooperative body currently chaired by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma.
On Sunday, Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF party fired Mugabe as its leader and recalled him from the presidency. They also issued an ultimatum that were he not to resign by noon on Monday, impeachment procedures would be started immediately.
The strangest defender of the legality of these actions by the military turned out to be Mugabe himself. When on Sunday he appeared on state television, ostensibly to resign, he said that the “military operation” was motivated by “a deep patriotic concern for the stability of the nation” and did “not amount to a threat to our well-cherished constitutional order”.
Whatever delight those words by Mugabe would have afforded the military, in that they effectively immunised the presidential overthrow against any AU intervention, the pleasure was short-lived. Departing from the script apparently agreed to by Mugabe and the stony-faced generals seated on the podium with him, Mugabe did not resign, but instead insisted in a long and rambling address that the necessary corrective actions would be undertaken under his oversight.
It is not clear why Mugabe reneged on an agreement which supposedly included assurances that he and his family would not face any legal actions relating to his presidency, nor would he have to return any of the billions of dollars that they have accumulated during his office. Whether or not it was incipient senility, as many assume, it ironically benefited the opposition – for Zanu-PF would need opposition parliamentary support to impeach the president.
It’s now a moot point. Mugabe has resigned “voluntarily … to ensure the smooth transfer of power” and opposition co-operation – which would have come at the cost of Zanu-PF agreeing to a democratisation timetable – is no longer needed. Mnangagwa, the Crocodile, who has a violent and controversial political past, will succeed him “within 48 hours,” says Zanu-PF.
The coup that was not a coup took a week. It will take longer for Zimbabweans to find out whether their jubilation at the unexpected transformation of their onetime oppressors to uniformed liberators will be vindicated or dashed. But as one said to me, “When you have been waiting so long, the replacement of Mugabe with Devil himself is an improvement. It opens the door to change. And change has its own momentum.”
William Saunderson-Meyer is a South African writer and author of the nationally-syndicated Jaundiced Eye column. @TheJaundicedEye