Zimbabwe's military seized power on Wednesday saying it was holding President Robert Mugabe and his family safe while targeting "criminals" in the entourage of the man who has ruled the nation since independence 37 years ago.
Zimbabwe’s military seized power on Wednesday saying it was holding President Robert Mugabe and his family safe while targeting “criminals” in the entourage of the man who has ruled the nation since independence 37 years ago. Soldiers seized the state broadcaster and a general appeared on television to announce the takeover. Armoured vehicles blocked roads to the main government offices, parliament and the courts in central Harare, while taxis ferried commuters to work nearby. The atmosphere in the capital remained calm.
In his first contact with the outside world since the takeover, Mugabe spoke by telephone to the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, and told him he was confined to his home but fine, the South African presidency said in a statement. It was not clear whether the apparent military coup would bring a formal end to the 93-year-old Mugabe’s rule; the main goal of the generals appeared to be preventing Mugabe’s wife Grace, 41 years his junior, from succeeding him. But whether or not he goes, it may mark the end of the country’s dominance by Mugabe, the last of Africa’s state founders still in power from the era of the struggle against colonialism, and one of the continent’s most polarising figures. Mugabe, still seen by many Africans as a liberation hero, is reviled in the West as a despot whose disastrous handling of the economy and willingness to resort to violence to maintain power destroyed one of Africa’s most promising states.
He plunged Zimbabwe into a fresh political crisis last week by firing his vice president and presumed successor. The generals believed that move was aimed at clearing a path for Grace Mugabe to take over and announced on Monday they were prepared to “step in” if purges of their allies did not end. “We are only targeting criminals around him (Mugabe) who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice,” Major General SB Moyo, Chief of Staff Logistics, said on television.
“As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.” In a sign Grace Mugabe’s allies were coming under pressure, the head of the ruling party’s youth wing, Kudzanai Chipanga, appeared on state TV on Wednesday evening to apologise for comments he had made criticising the army a day earlier. He said he was speaking voluntarily. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the African Union and Western countries called for calm.
South Africa’s defence and state security ministers flew into Harare to try to arrange talks between Mugabe and the generals, South African media reported without going into further details. “We cannot tell how developments in Zimbabwe will play out in the days ahead and we do not know whether this marks the downfall of Mugabe or not,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told parliament. “We will do all we can, with our international partners, to ensure this provides a genuine opportunity for all Zimbabweans to decide their future.”
Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, a leading member of the ruling party’s ‘G40’ faction, led by Grace Mugabe, had been detained by the military, a government source said.
By Wednesday afternoon it was business as usual in Harare’s suburbs while there was less traffic than normal in the city centre. Residents spoke in awe of events that had previously seemed unthinkable.
“I don’t support the army but I am happy to see Mugabe gone, maybe this country can start to develop again,” said Rumbi Katepfu, preparing to shut her mobile phone shop early in downtown Harare. “I did not think this would ever happen… We used to think Mugabe and Grace were invincible.”
As evening fell there were fewer people on the streets than usual. In one park, a lone couple shared a chocolate bar, seemingly unconcerned by the presence of troops. “What’s there to fear? This is a free country,” said Nathan Mpariwa, stroking the hand of his partner. Tanks blocked roads after dark and soldiers with automatic weapons kept up their patrols, but made no effort to stop people streaming home from work.
Whatever the final outcome, the events could signal a once-in-a-generation change for the southern African nation, once a regional bread-basket, reduced to destitution by an economic crisis Mugabe’s opponents have long blamed on him.
Even many of Mugabe’s most loyal supporters had come to oppose the rise of his wife, who courted the powerful youth wing of the ruling party but alienated the military, led by Mugabe’s former guerrilla comrades from the 1970s independence struggle. “This is a correction of a state that was careening off the cliff,” Chris Mutsvangwa, the leader of the liberation war veterans, told Reuters. “It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife.”
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change called for a peaceful return to constitutional democracy, adding it hoped the military intervention would lead to the “establishment of a stable, democratic and progressive nation state”.