Zimbabwe: When is a coup not a coup?

Dr Rebecca Richards
Lecturer in International Relations, SPIRE

When the people of Zimbabwe, and much of the world, woke up on the morning of 15 November, they were greeted with images of an army general on Zimbabwe’s state owned television station. The general, dressed in military fatigues and surrounded by other officers, stated that the military had taken temporary control of Zimbabwe’s government in order to target criminals surrounding long-term president/dictator Robert Mugabe; criminals who were “committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in order to bring them to justice.” Mugabe and is family, including his controversial wife, Grace, were declared to be safe, and their continued safety was guaranteed. Journalists in the capital, Harare, reported that there was a very minimal military presence in the city, and although a few explosions were reported, there were no real outward signs of violence. The hallmark signs of a coup d’etat were there, but was it a coup?

 

What makes a coup a coup?

A coup d’etat, simply defined, is the illegal, sudden overthrow of an existing government by a small group through the threat or use of force. Coups typically involve the military, largely because of their “peculiarly advantageous qualifications for staging them” – the military is within the state apparatus, it is armed and can threaten credible violence, and it often carries the capacity to gain enough support to pull off and sustain this form of political transition. Coups often involve violence, although ‘bloodless’ or ‘non-violent’ coups are not unheard of. Coups result in the change in government, either the change in leadership but more often the change in type of government. This change takes place through illegal means, meaning that the change was not because of a leader dying or stepping down, or because of an election or legal process of selecting a new head of government. We typically think of coups as the start of military intervention into politics, or the installation of a military regime. However, as my colleague Rosemary O’Kane points out, it is more typical for those who staged the coup to “encourage civilians to share office.” Indeed, some coups have resulted in the installation of fully civilian governments. The 1974 coup in Portugal ultimately led to a democratically elected government.

Coup d’etats are largely associated with sub-Saharan Africa, which is not surprising given the large number of them since many African states gained their independence. However, coups are not a uniquely African experience; a 2016 coup attempt is only one such non-African coup in very recent memory.

Coups of course include large military movements into the capital. Other typical hallmarks are what we saw in Zimbabwe in the early morning hours: military takeover of (typically state-run) media, declarations that the former leader is detained but safe, and promises that the action is returning the government to the people or is for the purpose of law, justice and security. It is not surprising, then, that much speculation pointed to a coup having taken place in Zimbabwe.

 

But was it a coup?

All signs are pointing to the fact that a coup has probably taken place in Zimbabwe. However, the army did not claim to have taken control of the government, and they stated that Mugabe, who has been Zimbabwe’s president for 37 years, was still in power. As of the morning of the 16th, reports  are indicating that negotiations between Mugabe and the military/Mnangagwa to end the uncertain political status of Zimbabwe are on going. What, then, happened?

The clue to this lies in the army’s declaration that they were targeting criminals surrounding Mugabe. There is no doubt that the criminals being referred to are the supporters and cronies of Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, has been suffering a crisis of its own lately. A liberation party that fought to overthrow British colonial rule, ZANU-PF has claimed to be protecting that revolutionary ideal, and Zimbabwe, for the past 37 years.

Much of the ZANU-PF crisis is related to who would replace 93 year-old Mugabe when he steps down. Until 3 November, the next in line to take over was likely to be 1st Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-term ally of Mugabe and a fellow liberation fighter. However, on 3 November, Mugabe dismissed Mnangagwa, citing disrespect, disloyalty, deceit and unreliability. This dismissal paved the way for a new likely successor to take his place: Grace Mugabe.

Gucci Grace,’ as she is sometimes called, has her own cadre of support, a group known as the G40 faction. She is highly unpopular and has a reputation for being both unpredictable and vindictive. It has long been suspected that Grace has been positioning herself within the government so that she can take over when her husband leaves. The ousting of Mnangagwa appeared to bring her one step closer to realizing that.

This jockeying for power within the party pitted the military against other factions. Much of Zimbabwe’s military is loyal to Mnangagwa, and the military does not like Grace Mugabe. It was not surprising, then, when rumours surfaced of his possible return to Zimbabwe from South Africa within hours after the military’s declaration. He is likely to be installed as interim president, possibly with Robert Mugabe as a figurehead of the state. How long either stays in that position will depend on what happens next in Zimbabwe.

In all likelihood, Mugabe will step down soon, either within hours or within a few weeks. His rule is clearly over: many in Zimbabwe have welcomed the change brought about by the military, and the most likely opposition to the action – the Grace supporting youth wing of the leading ZANU-PF party – has openly fallen in behind the military.

 

So was it a coup?

What took place in Zimbabwe was both a coup and not a coup. It bears the typical hallmarks of a coup, minus the immediate change in power. What we saw in Zimbabwe was a result of internal power struggles within the leading ZANU-PF party. It was military intervention in order to change the line of secession, not to immediately overthrow the president. By all appearances, it did not target Mugabe, but instead targeted his wife and those in government loyal to her. However, because Zimbabwe is in effect a one-party state, we cannot separate the party from the state. And the seeming success of the military’s actions, including the return of Mnangagwa, almost certainly means that Mugabe’s power is effectively over. But – and this is a fairly substantial but – it is unlikely that Mnangagwa’s rule will ultimately change the government in Zimbabwe or the type of rule exercised.

Mugabe’s rule may be over, but the jury is still out on whether this can truly be classified as a ‘typical’ coup. Perhaps, though, what we should take from this is that there is rarely a standard template for anything that happens in politics. We saw a coup, but it was a coup of different sorts.

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