The military action against Mugabe came a day after armed forces commander Constantine Chiwenga announced that the military would stop “those bent on hijacking the revolution”.
“It is definitely a coup, in the sense that there’s been a military intervention in the highest office of the state and state functionaries, such as the public broadcaster have been taken over,” says Liesl Louw-Vaudron, analyst for the Institute of Security Studies.
Willie Breytenbach, Emeritus Professor in Political Science at Stellenbosch University, says that, although the situation will only crystalise over the next few days, it has all the hallmarks of a military coup d’état.
Experts are also in agreement that Mugabe’s sacking of his long-standing ally, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and his attempts to force his wife into the position of vice president and, by implication, president, are what led to the dramatic military action.
“What we’re seeing is really the long-term result of the blocking of any kind of democratic transition in Zimbabwe. The army is now stepping in on behalf of the factional leader [Mnangagwa] in the name of the constitution and Zimbabwe’s democratic ideals,” says Professor Brian Roftopoulos, a leading researcher on Zimbabwe from the University of the Western Cape.
“This is of course all very ironic, seeing that the military has been using violence to keep Mugabe in power indirectly and Mnangagwa has played a key role in supporting him, despite him previously losing the elections.”
While the military has been careful not to cast their action against Mugabe as a coup, but rather as a “democratic transition”, Roftopoulos says this is because they know that a coup will not go down well with the Zimbabwean people, who are tired of violence.
“The army is supposed to uphold the law and maintain order,. So, to stage a coup of sorts and then claim you are doing it in the name of democracy is completely contradictory,” she says.
“We’ve seen this type of action all across Africa in countries like Uganda and Mauritania, where the generals take over, then hold an election and get elected themselves.”
According to statements by the military leadership, they plan only to be in charge for as long as it takes to prepare for free and fair elections.
“Of course, the voters will then have a choice between the current authoritarian regime and a new authoritarian government. Zimbabweans are so desperate for change that they might think this transition is a good thing, but it’s setting a very dangerous precedent,” says Roftopoulos.
The military’s sudden support for Mnangagwa against Mugabe, who turns 94 in February, can be seen as the direct result of his attempts to make his wife, Grace, his successor and a growing unhappiness about the governing elite, says Breytenbach.
“Mugabe has always been able to keep the military generals on his side by having them benefit from land grabs, the country’s diamond production and the war in the DRC. So the fact that they have turned against him says a lot about how they feel about Grace Mugabe,” he says.
The South African Presidency has called for calm and restraint regarding the situation, saying SADC will continue to closely monitor the situation and remains ready to assist if necessary.
However, Roftopoulos believes that critical questions should be asked about South Africa’s role in the turmoil in Zimbabwe.
“The interesting question is how much the South African government knows about what’s going on there at the moment and the role we’re playing,” he says.
“Our government has always been pushing the idea of stability in the SADC region rather than the democratisation of countries, and the Mbeki government in particular had taken a position about the key role of the military to achieve this.”
Louw-Vaudran says that a civil war or severe political instability in Zimbabwe could have dramatic consequences for South Africa and other neighbouring countries.
“Of course, we might see an influx of Zimbabwean refugees, but it could also have an impact on our economic and political systems, which are heavily intertwined with that of other countries in the region,” she says.
“As chair of SADC, South Africa has a direct responsibility to ensure stability in Zimbabwe.”Post published in: Featured