15 November 2017 - ARC’s Tara O’Connor assesses news of a coup

Change comes to Zimbabwe?

A military coup has taken place in Zimbabwe. Army commander General Constantino Chiwenga on 15 November detained the president, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, and his wife Grace. The army came out in support of the former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, whom Mugabe had sacked days earlier. General Chiwenga, flanked by over 90 senior army officials, had earlier appeared on television threatening to step in if the ruling Zanu-PF did not stop sacking officials with a liberation struggle past. The army has placed President Mugabe under house arrest and has arrested several of his close cohorts, notably finance minister Ignatius Chombo, local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere, and education minister, Jonathan Moyo.

Both army and Zanu-PF stalwarts claim it is not a coup but a “transition” and say it is to prevent Robert Mugabe creating a political dynasty by imposing his wife as the Zanu-PF candidate in next year’s elections. Grace, Mugabe’s wife, 41 years his junior, led the so-called G40 faction within Zanu-PF, comprising mainly middle-aged Mugabe loyalists, some of whom share blood ties with the first family. Mnangagwa’s older clique, the ‘Lacoste’ faction, clearly has the support of the army and war veterans, but whether they have the unanimous support of the security forces is unknown. The other security services are reportedly also split along along factional lines. The ubiquitous Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and police have so far remained silent. In a televised statement on 15 November at 4am (Harare time), army spokesman Major General Sibusiso Moyo warned other security services against any provocation. The coup is likely to stay bloodless: it is unlikely that a pro-Mugabe armed militia would attack the Zimbabwe Defence Forces.   Regional intervention is also unlikely. The African Union (AU) will not tolerate a coup that leads to extended military rule. South Africa currently holds the rotating Southern African Development Community (SADC) chair. However, unlike West Africa’s ECOWAS, which successfully intervened in The Gambia, Mali and Burkina Faso to restore civilian rule, SADC is weaker and distracted by political chaos in South Africa. Intervention will be political only, given South Africa’s failure to intervene in Lesotho’s political crisis in September 2017. At most South Africa will send envoys to Zimbabwe in the next few days.

On the wider political spectrum this shows yet again that Africa’s voters will not tolerate dynastic politics. The threat of a Grace Mugabe presidency gave the army an easy excuse. This will serve as a warning to Jacob Zuma, who is hoping to foist his ex-wife on South Africa as its next president. Botswana’s President Ian Khama appointed Mokgweetsi Masisi to avoid perpetuating the Khama dynasty. It is also worth remembering the ignominy of Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore’s convoy in flight to Yamoussoukro, which was captured on video and went viral on TwitterSenegal’s Abdoulaye Wade’s record as veteran opposition leader and successful president went wrong as soon as he gave way to the presidential ambitions of his son, Karim Wade.  The risks to members of Africa’s would-be dynasties are also clear: buried in all the news of a coup, was news that Angolas new President, João Lourenço, had sacked his predecessor’s daughter, Isabel dos Santos, from Sonangol, the state oil company board.

While it is still too early to say what the outcome will be, the army is likely to establish a transitional authority, which Mnangagwa will lead, then hold elections for a new leader in 2018. The transitional government may include leaders of Zimbabwe’s political opposition. However, there is no guarantee that the election will be free and fair, especially if the army prefers Mnangagwa to succeed Mugabe as Zimbabwe’s president.  

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