Zimbabwe Military Coup: Mugabe’s Position Uncertain While Under House Arrest


On Wednesday 15 November, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was placed under house arrest by the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), who seized the state’s broadcaster – Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) – and blocked off access to the high court and government buildings. This comes after President Mugabe sacked Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa on 6 November, in a bid to free up the position for First Lady Grace Mugabe. The move by the military has encouraged thousands to rally in Harare on Saturday 18 November calling for Mugabe’s official resignation.

Early Wednesday morning, hours after the military’s move, Major General Sibusiso Moyo released a statement insisting the military action did not represent a coup against the President, but instead was aimed at “targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes” in order to “pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation […] which if not addressed may result in a violent conflict.” International leaders such as UN Secretary General António Guterres and South African President Jacob Zuma have urged for calm and restraint by the military, though have not condemned its actions. Those associated with Lacoste, the nickname for Mnangagwa’s sub-faction in the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), encouraged the population to march on Saturday to show support for military’s actions.

It seems that Mugabe has finally lost the influence required to maintain his grasp on power. Major General Moyo’s call for calm appears to be a smokescreen for accelerating a transition process. Mugabe’s falling out with his former vice-president earlier this month, coupled with the leader’s advanced age, has no doubt prompted pro-Mnangagwa elements of ZANU-PF, Zimbabwe’s main political party, to make a bid for the leadership of the party in the lead up to the general elections, scheduled to be held next year. Despite the potential for political change this event has sparked in Zimbabwe, the takeover by the ZDF may undermine the free and fair nature of the 2018 elections. Indeed, heavy involvement in the transition process by the military may backfire, especially if the attempt to nominate a legitimate candidate to lead the majority ZANU-PF is unsuccessful. Although Mnangagwa has the backing of the army, his controversial reputation built up during Zimbabwe’s war of independence in the 1970’s and 1980’s calls into question his capacity for reform and stability as the head of the transitional process.

Emmerson Mnangagwa has a long history within the military and security organs of Zimbabwe.  During the war of independence in the 1970’s, Mnangagwa assisted in directing ZANU forces under Mugabe. He was head of the Central Intelligence Organisation during the military’s suppression of its rival political party Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) before it merged with ZANU to become ZANU-PF in 1980. It was at this time that parts of the Zimbabwe military committed atrocities on ethnic Ndebeles in Matabeleland where, according to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, thousands of civilians were tortured and killed who supported then ZAPU opposition leader Joshua Nkomo. As a long-time supporter of Mugabe, the seizure of power by the ZDF in Mnangagwa’s name can just as easily be interpreted as a politically expedient power grab as a sincere attempt for political change.

In any case, the elation of the recent rallies held in the capital highlight Zimbabwean citizens’ support for any alternative candidate, and as long as Mugabe’s resignation is forthcoming, the military’s actions for now appear to be legitimized by the people. Mugabe has not been seen since Friday 17 November during a university graduation ceremony, so he may have no choice but to cede power. What this means for peace and stability in Zimbabwe remains to be seen. Yet, one can be hopeful that with the end of Mugabe’s 37-year hold on power, the people of Zimbabwe will have a chance at true political and social empowerment.

Hugh Davies