PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace experienced one of their most horrific moments when they woke up last Wednesday morning only to find their luxurious Borrowdale mansion under siege from the military that had over the years helped maintain the long-time leader’s iron grip.
By Bernard Mpofu
The presence of four tanks and a platoon of soldiers stationed outside this mansion was enough to signal to Zimbabwe’s only leader since Independence in 1980 that the end was nigh.
Since then he had been largely captive and, on the few occasions he left his home, he was subjected to thorough security checks, some of which were humiliating. Clearly, relations between Mugabe and the same state security apparatus which had made him one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, had broken down irretrievably.
His failure to rein in his voluble wife, who was now eyeing power and the sacking of his long-time lieutenant and vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, became the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
This week, the Zimbabwe Independent spoke to insiders and security sources who witnessed Mugabe’s harrowing final days in power.
It all started late Tuesday afternoon last week when armoured personnel carriers and tanks left Inkomo Barracks while Mugabe was chairing what was to become his last cabinet meeting at Munhumutapa, one of the most protected buildings in Harare’s central business district. This was after Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander Constantino Chiwenga had the previous day issued a statement threatening military intervention over Zanu PF succession-driven purges.
Security sources said Mugabe was briefed of the looming threat soon after the November 7 cabinet meeting, but dismissed it as just a show of force. The army had been infuriated. One of Mugabe’s remaining allies, Kudzanayi Chipanga, who served as the ruling Zanu PF’s youth wing secretary, had crossed the line in his reaction to Chiwenga’s statement. He dared the army, accusing the Zimbabwe Defence Forces of looting the proceeds of diamond sales. He also ordered Chiwenga to stop meddling in internal party politics. Chiwenga defied Mugabe. The army reacted and moved into the capital, causing panic among many. Zanu PF spokesperson Simon Khaya Moyo described Chiwenga’s remarks as treasonous, adding fuel to fire.
By end of day on Tuesday, nearly 40 army trucks, which included tanks and armoured personnel carriers, were now stationed at Two Presidential Guard barracks at Dzivaresekwa, awaiting orders. Those orders, according to military sources, came and by 9:30pm, the trucks left the army camp, moving along Kirkman Road, heading towards central Harare and other key strategic areas. Meanwhile, Mugabe appeared oblivious or put on a brave face to the developments that happened during the night.
First to be under siege was Finance minister Ignatius Chombo’s house in Mt Pleasant around 11:30pm. By midnight, four tanks, comprising Russian and Chinese-built T69 and T72, headed to Mugabe’s mansion. Mugabe’s military men, the Presidential Guard Brigade, headed by Chiwenga’s confidante Nhamo Anslous Sanyatwa, had been brief of the operation, which was later code-named “Operation Restore Legacy”.
During this night of long knives, sources said, ministers linked to a rival Zanu PF faction, who were on the army’s wanted list, Jonathan Moyo and Saviour Kasukuwere, dramatically escaped a siege and their families took refuge at the Blue Roof, Mugabe’s palatial mansion.
By sunrise on Wednesday, the writing was on the wall and the die had been cast. G40 plans to elbow out Mnangagwa rise had been foiled. Mugabe’s chief security man, Central Intelligence Organisation director in charge of security, Albert Ngulube, had been seized by the army and there was a blackout on the security situation. His motorcade also arrived at the Blue Roof, but could not leave without orders from Defence House.
“Mugabe’s security was shaken to the core when his house was put under siege. He was reduced to a prisoner. His movements were now limited. The army was clearly in control after tanks took position at strategic places at Blue Roof,” a senior security officer said.
Between Wednesday last week and late Tuesday afternoon this week when he bowed to pressure, Mugabe only left his Borrowdale mansion twice. Firstly when he met military chiefs after the army took control of the capital and major trunk roads and when he officiated at what was to be his last graduation ceremony as chancellor of state-run universities at the Zimbabwe Open University.
As the drama unfolded and the military made it clear to him that it was in charge, his wife Grace, accused by many of triggering her husband’s demise, remained holed up in the mansion despite false social media reports that she had fled to Namibia or China.
She only experienced limited freedom of movement on Monday morning around 11am when her white Land Cruiser V8 was escorted by two army Mercedes sedans to her Mazowe empire. Somehow, the centre was giving in. Sources said while Grace was away in Mazowe, another round of talks commenced at the Blue Roof.
Acting CIO boss Aaron Nhepera, Defence minister, Catholic priest Fidelis Mukonori and former Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono came to the Mugabe residence for talks. Soldiers and war veterans were digging in after Mugabe shocked the world in a televised address that he was still in charge and would address the grievances raised by those who wanted him out. It was a case of too little too late. The Zanu PF central committee had expelled him and his coterie from the party. His nemesis, Mnangagwa was elected to lead the party.
As pressure intensified, the number of high-ranking officials visiting Mugabe’s Borrowdale home increased. On the day he tendered his resignation to the Speaker of the National Assembly Jacob Mudenda, Chief Secretary to the Office of the President and Cabinet Misheck Sibanda, Attorney-General Prince Machaya, Mukonori, Justice minister Happyton Bonyongwe, Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi and Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba, as well as Gono, had a morning meeting with Mugabe which lasted about four hours.
All this happened as Zanu PF and the opposition MDC-T joined forces to drive an impeachment process for Mugabe. Earlier, his plan to convene a cabinet meeting failed after most ministers linked to Mnangagwa boycotted the meeting.
“This meeting marked the endgame. He was cornered. He wanted to ensure the safety of his family and that he was guaranteed,” another source familiar with the negotiations said.
His resignation sparked wild celebrations outside his Munhumutapa office which ended around midnight on Tuesday evening.
For the army, all these political manoeuvres which limited Mugabe’s movements, effectively putting him under house arrest, were some form of “military constitutionalism” and not a coup.
“What the Zimbabwe Defence Forces is doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country which if not addressed may result in a violent conflict . . . To members of all defence forces, all leave is cancelled and you are all to return to your barracks . . .,” ZDF Chief-of-Staff (Quartermaster) Major-General Sibusiso Moyo said on the night the army took control on November 8.
A day after Mugabe’s resignation, life remained unchanged at his rural home in Zvimba, but a cloud of fear hung over the villagers, with some saying they were unware of the dramatic political developments.
For 78-year Felix Gatsi, who last had a job soon after Independence in 1984, Mugabe’s ouster marked the dawn of a new era.
“I would watch his motorcade drive to his rural home every other Sunday morning. It had been close to a month since he last came here,” said Gatsi.
“I have five children who are all unemployed and now depend on subsistence farming. Mugabe would force us to attend his rallies, but he never fulfilled his election promises. For Mnangagwa, it is my desire that he won’t be another Mugabe who has caused so much suffering to the people.”