Zimbabwe’s military said on Wednesday that it was holding President Robert Mugabe and his family safe while targeting “criminals” in the entourage of Mugabe who has ruled the South African nation for 37 years.
A general appeared on state television to announce the takeover as armoured vehicles blocked roads to the main government offices, parliament and the courts in central Harare. The atmosphere in the capital remained calm.
Mugabe was said to have spoken by telephone to the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, and told him he was confined to his home but fine.
Reports said it was unclear whether the 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.
“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,” Reuters quoted Major General SB Moyo, Chief of Staff Logistics, as saying on television.
“As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy,” he added.
Western countries mostly called for calm. “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 was quoted as saying.
Zimbabwe’s political crisis reached a boiling point last week with the dismissal of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, clearing the way for Mugabe’s wife, also a vice president, to succeed him.
Mugabe told supporters he had dismissed Mnangagwa for disloyalty and disrespect, as well as using witchcraft to take power.
The move exacerbated divisions in the ZANU-PF party, where the youth faction is firmly on Grace Mugabe’s side, while many older veterans of the struggle against white rule look to Mnangagwa. As a former defence minister, Mnangagwa has strong support with the military.
At one point last month, Grace Mugabe even warned that supporters of Mnangagwa were planning their own coup. He later fled to South Africa.
Political commentator Maxwell Saungweme was quoted as saying by phone that the military would probably try to pressure Mugabe to step down in favour of Mnangagwa as acting president.
“But this plan may not pan out as Mugabe might resist this. So the whole thing may be messy,” he warned.
By Wednesday afternoon it was business as usual in Harare’s suburbs while there was less traffic than normal in the city centre. Soldiers continued to man armoured cars but had relaxed searches on vehicles on some checkpoints. 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.”
Mugabe supporters seemed disinclined to fight to defend him. Tinashe Murisi, washing a car emblazoned with a picture of Mugabe in the poor township of Mbare a few minutes from the city centre, said: “All I need is peace in the country and the rest we don’t have to get involved in what does not concern us.”
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 poverty by an economic crisis Mugabe’s opponents have long blamed on him.
Even many of Mugabe’s most loyal supporters over the decades 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”.
Zuma – speaking on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – expressed hope there would be no unconstitutional changes, and urged Zimbabwe’s government and the military “to resolve the political impasse amicably.”
President Muhammadu Buhari said, “Every attempt must be made to resolve all contentious issues by constitutional means in Zimbabwe to save the country from avoidable political instability.”
While most African states gained independence by the end of the 1960s, Zimbabwe remained one of the last European colonies on the continent, ruled by white settlers as Rhodesia until 1980. Mugabe took power after a long guerrilla struggle, and two decades later ordered the forcible seizure of white-owned farms.
The fall in output that followed was one of the worst economic depressions of modern times. By 2007-2008 inflation topped out at 500 billion per cent. Mugabe blamed Britain and the United States for sabotaging the country to bring it to heel. His followers used violence to suppress a growing domestic opposition he branded lackeys of former colonial powers.
The economy briefly stabilised from 2010-2014 when Mugabe was forced to accept a power-sharing government with the opposition, but since then the recovery has unravelled. In the last year, a chronic shortage of dollars has led to long queues outside banks. Imported goods are running out and economists say that by some measures inflation is now at 50 per cent a month.
The economic implosion has destablised the region, sending millions of poor labourers streaming out of the country, mostly to neighbouring South Africa.