ON November 19 2016, an army unit managed to “overpower” the Presidential Guard at President Robert Mugabe’s private residence, “The Blue Roof”. Security minister Kembo Mohadi and Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi, who backed the military outfit, the 2nd Brigade, immediately placed Mugabe under house arrest and proceeded to cut all his links to the outside world.
Simukai Tinhu Political analyst
Summoned state television journalists were ordered to record the nonagenarian as he reads his “resignation” speech.
Due to ill-health, he reads the speech which interrupts the normal ZBC’s 8pm news bulletin. The president is stepping down and annointing Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa as his successor. Looking exhausted and “frail”, Mugabe finishes his speech by urging the party and nation to rally behind the Midlands heavyweight.
Six months down the line, Mnangagwa is firmly in power. Changes have been sweeping. His government has already introduced more than a hundred changes that include abolishing the elected mayors, city councillors and has closed down private radio stations on the one hand.
On the other hand, thousands of miles away from Harare, in his Saudi Arabian palace — the “Siberia” of deposed African leaders — Mugabe regrets as the three-hour long interview nears its end: “I made a mistake!”
The Guardian newspaper interviewer thinks to himself: the nonagenarian has never admitted to making a mistake before.
“So you think if you had changed the course of your country by introducing progressive economic reforms and liberalising the political system and then mapped out a succession plan, things might have turned out differently for your nation?”
But the former Zimbabwe strongman is talking about something totally different: “No! I mean, I should have seen this coming and finished Mnangagwa off within a year of being vice-president!”
Usually, internal crises of men of Mugabe’s gigantic intelligence take place in those most private and remote regions where we mere mortals can never reach. Did he mean demotion, expulsion or assassination? We will never know.
Mugabe’s stance on succession
In recent months, Mugabe’s room for political manoeuvre has been seriously squeezed by a trend within his own party. Since he ascended to the vice-presidency, those within the ruling party who are in support of Mnangagwa taking over have, on behalf of the reluctant Midlands godfather, been attempting to force out the nonagenarian. The most active in that endeavour have been the war veterans, a group of senior elites in the central committe and politburo and some youth groups who are eager to see the nonagenarian depart from the political scene and hand over the leadership of the party well before the 2018 elections.
In response to this growing pressure, the president has been characteristically outlandish. A couple of weeks ago, the nation’s strongman sanctioned the party’s youth wing to organise what has become known as the “million-man march” in support of his candidature for the upcoming elections.
At the million-man march, Mugabe reiterated that he has no intention, any time soon, of passing on the political baton to anyone, least of them Mnangagwa. His wife, Grace, supported her husband’s position and told the Zanu PF loyalists who thronged Robert Mugabe Square, just outside Harare’s central business district, that her husband was not going anywhere. Instead, he would rule from beyond the grave. According to her, he is “irreplaceable”.
In politics, such outlandish utterances, if said once, can be excused as a mistake or too much excitement by the speaker. The politician concerned might indeed go ahead and apologise and the public might have no qualms in forgiving him or her. But if the politician makes such statements more than once, these statements then form a trend and the public should have a greater interest in their meaning. This is not the first time that the First Lady has said something similar, with the same message being directed at Mnangagwa. Before, she has talked about getting a wheel barrow or a special wheelchair for her husband if his age becomes a stumbling block to eternal rulership.
What more clear message does Mnangagwa need in order to understand that his senior in the party and government has no intention of handing over power to him, any time soon. Indeed, if he continues to forestall his allies in the army and war veterans association’s call for a much more confrontational approach with the president, his ambitions risk suffering a still birth like those of his predecessor, Joice Mujuru.
The Midlands godfather seems to prefer the wait-and-see approach, hoping one day to receive a letter from State House or a hospital in the Far East telling him that Mugabe has succumbed to biology. On the other hand, his allies, in particular the impatient war veterans and Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantine Chiwenga, who risks losing his job anytime soon, are urging him to ratchet up the pressure against Mugabe. With Mnangagwa contradicting a confrontational style favoured by his allies, what you have in the Team Lacoste, as the Mnangagwa camp is known, is a muddled grand approach to remove the president.
But with such strong resistance from the president, his wife and their G40 loyalists on one hand and a poor strategy by Team Lacoste on how to undermine the nonagenarian on the other, Zanu PF might as well be represented by a 94-year-old at the 2018 elections. Indeed, time is running out for the 77-year-old Mnangagwa — he is not 74 as officially understood — leaving a coup, whether in the party or government, as the only realistic strategy to push Mugabe out well before the upcoming elections.
Before venturing much into this discussion, let it be understood that writings about a coup should not be interpreted as a deadly suggestion — that is, if you don’t want your elected leaders, you have to get rid of them through extra-constitutional means. Nor should it be seen as an expression of one’s wishes. Writing about coups in our very own context is important in the sense that it helps broaden our imagination to the realms of what can happen to any political system, including our own. Coups have been executed in some of the most unimaginable political situations. Surely, a coup must have crossed the minds of Mnangagwa’, Chiwenga and others at some point.
Now, let’s look at various ways in which Mnangagwa can at least in theory orchestrate a coup.
Allies in the military
Mnangagwa is close to Chiwenga whom he reportedly intends to make a potential vice-president. In return for the vice-presidency and potentially passing on the leadership baton in the future, the general can facilitate a coup. The nonagenarian could be arrested, pressured to tender his resignation and then hand over power to his vice-president.
Alternatively, the military could declare a coup without directly contacting Mugabe. The claim to “restore democracy and reconstruct the country” could be cited as the reasons for this extreme measure. State of emergency is declared and parliament suspended.
The military will then follow the standard post — coup restoration of civilian order sequence. Initially, they might probably want to run the country themselves with Chiwenga heading a military government for a couple of years whilst “progressive reforms” are being implemented or install a transitional civilian government run by handpicked politicians, mostly from the ruling party, Zanu PF. An election will then have to be organised after at the end of the transitional government. The Midlands godfather will then “win the election”.
However, Mnangagwa is unlikely to take this course. This is because there is a massive chance that a military coup might fail. Mugabe’s allies may call an anti-coup demonstration or protest that might galvanise the president’s support base of women, youths, Mashonaland provinces and rural voters against coup plotters. The security sector itself, in particular, that section of young officers who detest Mnangagwa might turn against the coup. Indeed, they might back off and even join the protesters if the coup faces stiff resistance.
Also, the vice-president understands how seriously Mugabe takes being challenged. If the coup fails and is sent into reverse, this move will certainly have serious consequences for Mnangagwa’s camp. Not only will his ambitions be dealt a huge blow, but also the nonagenarian might take extreme measures.
Hunting down Mnangagwa and his allies will follow if a coup fails. Furthermore, for a man who craves legitimacy, in order to mask his historical human rights abuses and corruption, Mnangagwa understands that ascending to power through a military coup means that all that work that he has undertaken in order to convince the British, in particular, and the West in general that he is the right man for the job, might suddenly unravel.
Using party elites
Mnangagwa has not only grown powerful as a result of the security sector support, but also within the party. He has a huge following of party elites within both the politburo and central committee who wants him to take over.
He can use these disgruntled party elites either through the ruling party structures, as Mujuru attempted to do in 2013, or those party elites in the politburo or central committee to openly defy Mugabe thereby undermine his authority. If Mugabe submits to this pressure, this could be seen as a “soft coup” — a palace coup
This again, is a strategy which is fraught with risks. None in the politburo or party’s central committe who were appointed by the nonagenarian for that matter can openly challenge Mugabe. Not only do these elites risk losing their positions within the party, but they also risk being kicked out of the party or government altogether. This will not only mean loss of political power, but most importantly loss of patronage and access to state resources for personal survival.
Political allegiance in Zanu PF is also fluid making it difficult for the vice-president to have a good estimate of who is and who is not on his side. As the case of three youthful politicians who until recently owed their political careers to the Midlands godfather, Zanu PF elites are ready to jump ship when their political careers are threatened. Mnangagwa used his political capital, resources and networks for the former ZBC reporter, Makhosini Hlongwane, Anastacia Ndhlovu and Tapiwa Matangaidze to further their political careers. However, these politicians have since switched sides to G40, which is led by Grace Mugabe.
Alliance with the opposition
This then leaves Mnangagwa with only one realistic option — an alliance with the opposition.
This can be done in two ways. First, utilising state resources and also his authority within the government, Mnangagwa can use the opportunity provided by the protests against Mugabe’s rule or use his power within the government to provoke a crisis that can be used by the opposition to stage a demonstration. Indeed, Harare’s political rumour mill has it that Mnangagwa, through his ally Patrick Chinamasa, mooted the idea of bond notes, a political move meant to undermine Mugabe’s leadership, or clandestinely encourage the opposition to protest against Mugabe’s rule. Not only will he need to devote resources to that cause, but he also needs to use his connections in the security sector to be restrained in their containment of these protests. The objective of such a strategy will be to erode Mugabe’s authority through delegitimation, forcing him to reconsider his position as party and the nation’s leader.
Second, he can combine forces with the MDC parties and use the legislative approach to push Mugabe out. This would be in the form of an impeachment. The president could be impeached on various grounds, but mostly realistically for corruption and incompetence in government. Mnangagwa would have to persuade a sufficient number of Zanu PF legislators to back his plan and also earn the trust of the opposition which is, however, likely to view that strategy with suspicion.
If it were to be successful, this strategy will allow Mnangagwa to earn legitimacy in the eyes of the international community and possibly some sections of the opposition. The resultant transitional or government of national unity with the opposition will allow him to buy time that he will certainly need to consolidate his position within his party and government in the post-Mugabe era.
Will a coup happen?
Mnangagwa is not a risk-taker. Though many point to the Tsholotsho Declaration of 2004, in which he attempted to circumvent Mugabe’s then choice of vice-president, Joice Mujuru, many have to remember that this was not his idea nor did he execute it personally. It was Professor Jonathan Moyo’s idea and his other allies at the time. Also, without clear signs that Mugabe has been weakened significantly, Mnangagwa is also unlikely to make any move against his senior.
In addition, a coup might set him on a collision course with London, which he is so desperately keen to impress.
But most importantly, almost every coup has been preceeded by strong rumours and in some cases, strong evidence of an impending coup. Indeed, there is always a sense of sweeping of the regime, which any insightful leader such as Mugabe would be able to see. These are both missing in Zimbabwe, and this explains why Mugabe can afford to leave for a month-long holiday in the Far East with the man who wants to take his position in charge of the nation. Such audacity tells us that the prospects of a coup in Zimbabwe are very remote even if politics is unpredictable.
Tinhu is a political analyst based in London.